Press Release

November 21, 2019
Cardin Remarks on Trump Pardons for War Criminals

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.)a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following remarks today following pardons granted by President Trump.

“As I start my remarks, I just want to underscore how valuable the Department of Defense Fellows program is to our individual offices. I can tell you firsthand that Captain Ng’s presence in my office has given me capacity to deal with issues concerning the appointments that I have the issues that are pending in Congress have a military nature. For those of us who have never served in the military service. Having someone like Captain Ng in our office is incredibly important. And I just really want to underscore that and thank all of our defense fellows for the services that they are performing to our country.

Mr. President, on May 22 of this year I stood before this body expressing my deep concerns about the media reports that President Trump was considering granting pardons to certain US military personnel who have been convicted of committing war crimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Now six months later, President Trump has followed through was setting a very dangerous precedent, pardoning three military personnel of war crimes: two who were found guilty under the US military Uniform Code of Military Justice, and one whose trial never concluded. President Trump’s pardons significantly disrupts the foundations of our own institutions, particularly the US military. First, President Trump’s pardon cause confusion for our military service members on what actions are acceptable on the battlefield, an already difficult task given the complexity of war. Second, he undermines the military justice system. Finally, these partners degrade America’s global standing and influence. 

Stephen Preston, a former general counsel in the Department of Defense, wrote in the Department of Defense Law of War manual in June of 2015, and I quote:

“The law of war is part of who we are. The laws of war have shaped the United States armed forces as much as they have shaped any other armed force in the world. The law of war is part of our military heritage, and obeying it is the right thing to do. The self control needed to refrain from violations of the law war under stresses of combat is the same good order and discipline necessary to operate cohesively and victoriously in battle. End quote. The law of war manual goes on to outline the five interdependent principles that serve as the foundation of the law of war: One, military necessity;  two, humanity; three, proportionality; four, distinction; and five, honor. These principles are pillars of American values, and the guideposts we expect American sons and daughters to operate within, so they remain trusted and respected by all citizens of the world. 

President Trump’s ill-advised pardons have placed those pillars on shaky ground. He has blurred the lines of morality for our troops and has disregarded the constitutional values that the founding fathers have set forth. By virtue of their oath and training members, the US military are accountable for their individual and collective actions. Through the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Department of Defense policy states, each member of the Armed Services has a duty to one comply with the laws of war in good faith and two, refuse to comply with clearly illegal orders to commit violations of the law of war. Two of these military personnel President Trump pardoned were found guilty of violating the law of war through their prescribed Department of Defense investigative and judicial processes. They violated international and domestic law and they failed to uphold their constitutional oath.

President Trump’s pardon of war crimes erode the trust, confidence and the legal and moral authority of the military justice system. He never gave the military justice system a chance to work and determine all the facts surrounding the third individual whom he pardoned.

Our own Commander in Chief has now compromised and degraded the integrity of the US military judicial system. A system America relies on to maintain good order and discipline within the ranks of our millions of uniformed service members. Perhaps most important and most damaging, President Trump’s actions have eroded America’s moral standing and global influence. That erosion emboldens our adversaries to cite our actions in committing and justifying their own war crimes.

Have we become a country that now justifies and embraces the type of acts that occurred in My Lai during Vietnam or Abu Ghraib in Iraq? Will we continue to allow horrific acts committed by rogue actors who strategically diminished America’s global standing? Moving forward, how will other nations trust the United States to implement and enforce the law of war as required by our own domestic laws, policies regulations in orders, and by the multiple treaty obligations before other countries? Our nation cannot tolerate crimes committed by rogue actors who violate their oath and turn their back on American laws and values. If our government does not hold those individuals accountable for their actions, the United States will never recover from the strategic losses they incur. Under no circumstances is adopting the behavior of our worst adversaries ever justified ever. Just as we seek to hold foreign actors accountable for war crimes, we also have an obligation to hold ourselves accountable. We cannot willfully allow our institutions or the individuals who serve them to deviate from the laws and standards of conduct and underpin our great nation. But that is precisely what President Trump has done. 

Our former colleague Senator John McCain suffered many years of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese captors. Nonetheless he stood in this chamber to decry our use of the same tactics? He said, and I quote: “this question isn’t about our enemies. It’s about us. It’s about who we are, who we are, and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world. Our enemies are without conscience. We must not.” Senator McCain was correct. Great Power competition with our adversaries is not just about who wins win a battlefield. Ultimately, it’s about preserving internationally recognized norms and values that uphold the rule of law, individual freedoms and human dignity. If the US fails to be global champions of current international norms and democratic values, then our adversaries will replace those values, with their own ideology predicated on intimidation, fear, and violent oppression.

United States must not be will fully commit or condone war crimes, and we must bring those who do commit them to justice regardless of citizenship, affiliation or background. Even in the fog of war, especially in the fog of war, we must so act.

We must always endeavor to act with moral clarity and preserve the international norms of values that took so long and of course, so many American lives to establish. Mr  President, I yield the floor.”