CRESTON, Iowa — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said President Donald Trump is trying to “short-circuit military justice” as he intervenes in a case involving the way the U.S. Navy disciplines an officer accused of war crimes.
“The worst part about it is it feels like now our own president is saying that a war fighter and a war criminal are the same, and it’s just not true,” Buttigieg said in an interview with the Des Moines Register Monday. “The message that sends, ultimately, I think is a smear against our veterans and service members who know full well the difference between a tough decision made in the heat of combat and committing a crime.”
Buttigieg was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and served in Afghanistan.
Trump recently intervened to prevent the Navy from expelling Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher from the Navy SEALs. Gallagher was acquitted of stabbing an Islamic State prisoner and firing on Iraqi civilians. But he was convicted of posing with the corpse of a dead captive.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday asked for the resignation of U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, saying he had lost confidence in his handling of the case.
“It’s one more example of the instability in leadership that really does have an impact on our servicemembers,” Buttigieg told reporters after attending events in Red Oak and Creston. “I just heard on the way over here from a Navy buddy venting frustration about all of the chaos that seems to be happening. And all of it emanates from the White House and a commander in chief who really does not show any evidence of understanding what it means to serve or to support those who do.”
In a speech in Creston, Iowa, the South Bend, Indiana mayor briefly alluded to the issue. He said the president needs to unite Americans around shared values like patriotism instead of using them to pit people against one another.
“What I’m not talking about is cheap nationalism of hugging the flag or thinking that it’s pro-military to cancel the judgment of military justice and pardon somebody who was turned in by his own soldiers for committing crimes,” he said.
He began his speech with a reference to his visit here to knock doors for then-candidate Barack Obama ahead of the 2008 caucuses. Buttigieg said that at the time he had been weighing whether to enter the armed services. Knocking the doors of so many Iowans who were serving, he said, “put me over the top.”
“By the time I left I knew that I was out of excuses not to be part of the solution myself,” he said. “And (I) knew that it was time for me to play my role, sign up for the reserves. That was a long road that led me to Afghanistan and back and it has made me a better person.”
Buttigieg’s Iowa campaign has increased its efforts around veteran outreach as it highlights the mayor’s military service on the campaign trail. The campaign has a national veterans engagement director who has been traveling to Iowa to help launch the “Veterans and Military Community for Pete” group, which has chapters in early voting states and around the country.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.