When Donald Trump brought up Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl during a campaign stop in Massachusetts last week, the presidential candidate was blunt about his frustration with the soldier, who faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for slipping away from his patrol base in Afghanistan in 2009.
“What do we do with Sergeant Bergdahl, 50 years ago?” Trump asked, after calling the soldier a “dirty, rotten traitor.”
Trump shaped his hand like a pistol.
“That’s right,” he said. “Boom. Boom!… Boom, he’s gone. He’s gone!”
Trump’s comments are not accurate — the United States has executed an accused military deserter only once since the Civil War, and that was when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered Pvt. Eddie Slovik before a firing squad more than 70 years ago during World War II. But the remarks are emblematic of the continued focus and fiery political rhetoric about Bergdahl’s criminal case.
Bergdahl’s case is brought up most commonly by Republican presidential candidates, with none doing so more often than Trump, the billionaire businessman who has grabbed attention for months with his incendiary commentary.
Bergdahl’s legal team has had enough, however. On Friday, they made a motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to request an expedited hearing for two issues in the soldier’s case, saying Trump’s continued attacks threaten Bergdahl’s right to fair consideration by the top officer overseeing the case, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, and any subsequent court-martial trial.
“Mr. Trump is treating Sergeant Bergdahl as a political chew toy,” said Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s top lawyer, in an interview. “What he is doing is very unfair, and we’re not going to tolerate it.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Bergdahl, now 29, was recovered by a U.S. Special Operations team in eastern Afghanistan in May 2014 following a controversial deal in which the White House approved the release of five Taliban detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They are now in Qatar.
The prisoner swap and the White House’s initial characterization afterward of Bergdahl as a soldier who served with distinction prompted an immediate outcry. Critics have stressed repeatedly that Bergdahl’s actions, at the minimum, jeopardized the lives of others who were ordered to search for him for weeks in combat afterward.
Bergdahl was charged by the Army in March, and faced a hearing in September in which investigating officers described him hatching a poorly formed plan in which he ran away from his patrol base to a larger military installation nearby to cause an uproar and get the attention of a general officer in order to air gripes about his fellow soldiers.
Bergdahl was taken captive within hours of leaving his patrol base, Observation Post Mest, and held for the next five years in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, a group linked with the Taliban. He was tortured regularly, starved and tried to escape repeatedly, said Terrence Russell, an official with the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, during testimony in September.
The decision of whether to try Bergdahl rests with Abrams, a four-star general at Fort Bragg, N.C. In the meantime, appeals have been filed by the soldier’s lawyers and the media asking the Army to release hundreds of documents associated with the case.
It is those appeals to which the latest filing regarding Trump apply. It includes a list of occasions on which the candidate has ripped Bergdahl as a “dirty, rotten traitor” a “no-good traitor” or alleged that “he went to the other side,” meaning he joined the Taliban.
On at least one occasion, Trump also has also suggested dropping Bergdahl off in Afghanistan, which he said would save the United States a bullet. Those are the sort of thing that Bergdahl’s legal team knows it can’t stop, but questions the cumulative effects.
“The First Amendment rules out any effort to prevent Mr. Trump from making these defamatory remarks,” Bergdahl’s new filing said. “The fact remains, however, that his pattern of doing so, with the full glare of public attention before mass audiences around the country, materially threatens SGT Bergdahl’s right to fair consideration by the convening authority as well as in a court-martial, if any charges are referred.”
Bergdahl’s lawyers made a similar motion in August, but the Court of Appeals did not take it up. The passage of time since “has permitted Mr. Trump to continue to beat him up, defame and generally vilify SGT Bergdahl most unfairly,” the new filing said. The new motion requests a hearing in December.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the senior Army officer who investigated Bergdahl’s case last year and interviewed him extensively, testified in September that Bergdahl was “unrealistically idealistic” about other people, and remorseful about he did. Given his years of being tortured, Dahl said, it would be “inappropriate” to give him a prison sentence now despite the massive, dangerous manhunt he spawned.
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.
Related on Checkpoint:
Bergdahl’s former officer: ‘Absolute disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my men.’