Why Trump identifies with war criminals
Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and several other charges pertaining "to a pattern of threatening and intimidating actions toward Afghans" as a platoon leader in Afghanistan. The ruling relied on the testimony of nearly a dozen of the men who served under him, accounts describing an "ignorant, overzealous, and out of control" officer who "hated the Afghan people" and spent his days "tormenting the locals and issuing death threats." Lorance's conviction included at least one crime every single day at the station in question.
This month, President Trump pardoned Lorance and another U.S. soldier convicted of war crimes while restoring the rank of a third subject to similar accusations. "Just this week I stuck up for three great warriors against the deep state," Trump boasted at his Florida rally Tuesday night. His rationale for issuing the pardons was threefold: First, because he likes the military so much ("I will always stick up for our great fighters"); second, because he wanted to reunite the families separated by these convictions ("He hugged his parents; it was a beautiful, beautiful thing"); and third, because he wants U.S. soldiers to feel free to do whatever it takes to keep America safe ("People have to be able to fight").
This is a load of tripe with a dash of trolling. The bit about the beauty of reuniting families seems calculated to infuriate opponents of this administration's zero-tolerance policy of separating migrant families at the border. That's the trolling. As for the rest of it, what Trump actually likes is war crimes, and, I suspect, he sees parallels here to himself. He wants his own history of fighting dirty to be likewise excused.
The president's affection for violence beyond the laws and norms of modern warfare is well-established. He expresses total confidence in the efficacy of torture, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and insists it should be employed even if it doesn't work ("They deserve it anyway for what they do to us"). In a 2016 op-ed, for example, Trump argued it is only political correctness that prevents the United States from drowning and beheading our enemies in the style of the Islamic State. He has waxed rhapsodic about the prospect of killing the families of terrorists — which is to say, murdering children because of the misfortune of their birth and slaughtering women who very possibly had no choice in their marriage. He has no interest in confining the U.S. military to the rule of law, whether domestic or international, instead envisioning himself as the war crime commander-in-chief: "If I say do it, they're going to do it."
This enthusiasm for cruelty might be sufficient to get Trump to issue pardons for war crimes. He has made clear he doesn't care whether these soldiers are innocent of what they are accused of doing and in fact believes they were right to do it if indeed they are guilty. But I think there's another factor at work: Trump in a sense identifies with the men he has pardoned. He is giving them the indemnity he hopes for himself.
"You know what I'm talking about," Trump said in Florida. "I had so many people say, 'Sir, I don't think you should do that.' People have to be able to fight. These are great warriors. They can't think, 'Gee whiz, if I make a mistake, do I go [to jail] for it?'" he continued. "People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? That doesn't matter to me whatsoever. [The soldiers are] out in that field, and they're doing a job for us like nobody else anywhere in the world can do."
Add in the "deep state" line from earlier in the speech and here's what you get: The Washington establishment is conspiring to stop our hero from doing what needs to be done — what he alone can do — for America. These prissy bureaucrats are obsessing over rules and niceties, bitching about the champion's commitment to fight for our country however he can.
Sounds familiar, no? It's Trump's framing of his war crimes pardons, but it's also his framing of the impeachment inquiry against him, in which — as he put it in Florida — "the failed Washington establishment is trying to stop me because I'm fighting for you and because we're winning."
Lorance and the other alleged and convicted war criminals Trump has pardoned would have attracted the president regardless. His rhetoric about torture and violence made that evident long before he was subject to accusations of corruption. But now that those accusations have been leveled, there is an added appeal. Trump has espied an opportunity to protect in parallel his own foul play. He has found a way to give the pardon he wants.