President Donald Trump’s potential plan to commemorate Memorial Day by pardoning alleged war criminals isn’t sitting well with some veterans — including Pete Buttigieg, the young South Bend mayor who has continued to poll toward the top of the crowded field of Democratic contenders in the early-going of the 2020 race. The former Navy intelligence officer took sharp aim at the president on Sunday for having dodged military service during the Vietnam War—and for reckless actions that Buttigieg said endanger service members and disrespect the rule of law.
“The idea that being sent to war turns you into a murderer is exactly the kind of thing that those of us who have served have been trying to beat back for more than a generation,” Buttigieg said in an interview with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz on Sunday morning. “For a president, especially a president who never served, to say he’s going to come in and overrule that system of military justice undermines the very foundations, legal and moral, of this country.”
Trump is said to be mulling Memorial Day pardons for several American military officials either accused or convicted of war crimes, including Navy Seal Edward Gallagher, who has been accused of disturbing and barbaric murders of civilians in Iraq. If there’s any doubt that this president is seriously considering the move, he put that to rest earlier this month when he pardoned Michael Behenna—a former army lieutenant who was convicted in 2009 of murdering an Iraqi prisoner. The moves have drawn scrutiny, including from Republicans senator and former combat veteran Joni Ernst, who cautioned Trump on Sunday to be “very careful” in deciding who to absolve. “It is not okay to perpetuate war crimes,” she said on CNN’s State of the Union.
The criticism was especially resonant coming from Buttigieg, one of two veterans running for president in 2020. The rising Democratic star didn’t only lambast Trump’s disregard for norms, ethics, and laws in his remarks Sunday—he also directly accused the president of faking a bone spurs diagnosis to avoid serving in the military he claims to love and support more than anybody. “There is no question, I think, to any reasonable observer that the president found a way to falsify a disabled status, taking advantage of his privileged status in order to avoid serving,” Buttigieg said on This Week. “You have somebody who thinks it’s alright to let somebody go in his place into a deadly war and is willing to pretend to be disabled in order to do it.”
“That is an assault on the honor of this country,” Buttigieg added.
Critics have long pointed to Trump’s multiple deferments from the Vietnam War draft as evidence of his hypocrisy when discussing the military. But Buttigieg, who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, went further. The “idea that being sent to fight makes you automatically into some kind of war criminal … could only come from somebody who never served,” he said.
It’s the second time Buttigieg has launched a high-profile critique of Trump’s record on military issues, drawing a sharper distinction between the two 2020 presidential candidates. In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this week, Buttigieg repeatedly brought up his own service when asked how he would compete against the current commander-in-chief. “I don’t have a problem standing up to someone who was working on Season 7 of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan,” he said.