On Sunday, President Trump tweeted that he would “be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero’ ” charged with murder.
It is a bizarre case: a decorated Green Beret confessed to killing an Afghan man, was investigated but not charged with a crime, confessed again three years later in a Fox News interview, was charged with premeditated murder, and now, thanks to the attention of Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite television program, may become the latest cause to be championed by Donald Trump and his conservative supporters.
Trump’s meddling would only make Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn’s case stranger. It’s highly unusual for a president to intervene so openly in a matter of the military courts, and as the New York Times noted, the comment has some Afghans and human rights advocates worried that any unjustified violence by U.S. soldiers will go unscrutinized and unpunished. Others fretted that it symbolized Trump’s disregard for separation of powers and the integrity of the military justice system.
But most people have simply been confused: This strange case of alleged murder, while notable, didn’t rise to the top of the news cycle until Trump watched Fox and tweeted about it. For those who missed the story, here’s what you need to know about Golsteyn’s case.
What do we know about Golsteyn?
Golsteyn, a former Green Beret, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 during a heavy period of fighting. He is alleged to have murdered a suspected Taliban bomb-maker after two Marines working with Golsteyn’s team were killed by a roadside bomb in February of that year.
We know about these allegations because Golsteyn himself admitted to them in a 2011 polygraph test as part of a CIA job interview. The confession triggered an Army investigation, but because of a lack of evidence, it did not result in any charges when it closed in 2014. (He was stripped of his Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor, according to the Army Times.) Golsteyn would have then been safe from any future charges, but in late 2016, he appeared in an interview on Fox News and again confirmed that he had killed the Afghan man. The Army then opened a second investigation, which concluded there was enough evidence to charged him with premeditated murder.
What do we know about the killing?
Most details come from Army documents from the first investigation, which was conducted in 2011. According to the documents, Golsteyn told the CIA that after the explosion that killed two Marines (an incident he was present for), he and his team found explosive materials in a home nearby. They seized a local man—identified as “a male of apparent Afghan descent known as Rasoul,” according to NBC News—who they believed to have possessed the materials and took him back to their base. Afterward they had a tribal leader identify Rasoul as a member of the Taliban. The tribal leader told the Americans that he was afraid that if Rasoul were released, he would report him to the Taliban, almost guaranteeing his death.
When, later that day, Rasoul was set to be released (the reason for this isn’t known, but it could be because of lack of evidence) Golsteyn, too, became worried that the man would report the tribal leader, he told the CIA. He also said he was concerned the Afghan man would kill American soldiers.
Golsteyn and another American soldier then took Rasoul to his home, but instead of releasing him, they shot him and buried his body in a shallow grave. Later that night, he and two other soldiers dug up the body and burned it in a trash pit on the base.
Why was he charged the second time but not the first?
It’s possible that new evidence has turned up in the case. NBC reported that one source said new evidence has cast doubt on Golsteyn’s version of events.
What is Golsteyn saying now?
His lawyer has argued that the Army files do not accurately reflect what he told the CIA. He has said in the past that it was a “fantasy” that Golsteyn confessed to shooting an unarmed man, according to the Army Times. According to NBC, Golsteyn also quibbled that the Army documents quote him as saying he “assassinated” the Afghan man, when he did not. He told NBC that the assassination line was “cut and pasted” into every subsequent report and used to justify his punishment in 2014.
Setting aside disagreements over facts in the case, Golsteyn maintains he did nothing wrong in killing the man, NBC reported. He’s not alone: California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who in an unrelated matter has been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, falsification of records, and misuse of campaign funds, attacked the Army investigation as “retaliatory and vindictive,” according to the Army Times, and called for Army leaders to “fix this stupidity.”
What happens if Trump intervenes?
The president has the ability to pardon Golsteyn upon his conviction, or even before the case makes its way through the court system.
But any other intervention before the sentencing could count as unlawful command influence, given Trump’s position as the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces. That could mean the case against Golsteyn is thrown out, according to the Associated Press.
One Defense Department official told the New York Times that it is assumed the case will continue, but the president’s tweet has put the military in an unusual position.
Is there any precedent for Trump’s tweet?
Not much. As the New York Times pointed out, President Nixon tried to intervene in the case of William L. Calley Jr., who was convicted of killing 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai massacre.
Trump, as a candidate, went the other way in the case involving Bowe Bergdahl, who he called a “dirty rotten traitor” who deserved to be shot. When Bergdahl was dishonorably discharged but not given any jail time, Trump tweeted that the sentence was a “complete and total disgrace.”
Other recent presidents have refrained from intervening in military trials.