The defense for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who could face life in prison after pleading guilty to charges that he endangered comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009, has asked the judge to renew a motion to dismiss charges based on new comments made by President Donald Trump.
Trump, whose role as president includes the job of commander in chief, responded to a reporter’s question on Bergdahl last week by stating that he couldn’t say more on the case, “but I think people have heard my comments in the past.”
As a candidate for president, Trump called Bergdahl a “traitor” who deserved to be executed. He also promised that, as president, he would “review his case” if the soldier did not receive further punishment from the court.
The judge, Army Col. Jeffrey Nance, heard arguments Monday in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on the last-minute motion, which said Trump’s comments were “unlawful command influence” that prevent Bergdahl from getting a fair sentence.
Last week, Bergdahl pleaded guilty at a court martial hearing to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The latter carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Nance is expected to rule of the motion when the court martial comes out of recess Wednesday morning. He said he “did not have any doubt whatsoever” that he could be fair and impartial.
However, Nance pointed out that “in spite of” Trump’s initial acknowledgement that he shouldn’t comment on the hearing, the president “goes on to say something” knowing that the sentencing for Bergdahl was still pending.
Trump’s comments on the campaign trail had previously been deemed by the judge as “disturbing” but not unlawful command influence because they were considered “political rhetoric” meant to embarrass his opponent.
However, Nance told the prosecution Monday that this reasoning “tend(s) to be eroded when the now president of the United States arguably adopts those statements.”
“What political opponent is he trying to embarrass when making statements in the (White House) Rose Garden?” the judge said.
Starting Wednesday, the hearing is expected to include testimony from soldiers injured in the dangerous search for Bergdahl after he left his post and was captured by the Taliban. The judge is expected to weigh their testimonies along with factors such as Bergdahl’s willingness to admit guilt and his five years in Taliban captivity.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban shortly after he left his remote post in 2009, prompting an extensive manhunt. The soldier from Idaho previously explained his actions saying he merely intended to cause alarm and draw attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
Bergdahl was freed from captivity in 2014 in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His high-profile case drew national political attention. President Barack Obama was criticized by Republicans who claimed the prisoner trade jeopardized the nation’s security.
Speaking last year in an on-camera interview by a British filmmaker, which aired Monday on ABC News, Bergdahl said Trump’s comments would make his chance for a fair trial impossible.
“We may as well go back to kangaroo courts and lynch mobs that got what they wanted,” Bergdahl said. “The people who want to hang me, you’re never going to convince those people.”