It’s not every day that a sitting Congressman admits to committing a potential war crime. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) made the comment over the weekend while defending former Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who has been charged with multiple offenses while serving in Iraq, among them that he photographed himself next to a man he had just killed. Gallagher’s court-martial begins this week, a process which Hunter called “corrupt” in the same speech.
Hunter’s Democratic opponent tweeted out the clip on Sunday evening:
Watch: Congressman Hunter in his own words.
“Eddie did one bad thing that I’m guilty of too — taking a picture of the body and saying something stupid… I’ve taken pictures just like that.”
What do other combat veterans think? pic.twitter.com/b7S2yGe1Kc
— Ammar Campa-Najjar (@ACampaNajjar) May 26, 2019
Gallagher faces more charges than just posing for the photograph, San Diego’s CBS affiliate explained last night:
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California acknowledged taking a photo with a dead combatant during his time as a Marine as he defended a Navy SEAL charged with multiple war crimes, including killing a teenage fighter. …
Hunter has advocated for a pardon for Edward Gallagher, who’s charged with stabbing to death a teenage Islamic State fighter under his care in Iraq in 2017 and then holding his reenlistment ceremony with the body.
Prosecutors said the Navy SEAL chief texted a photograph of himself next to the dead fighter and wrote he “got him with my hunting knife.” He’s also accused of shooting two civilians in Iraq and opening fire on crowds.
Hunter said he also posed for a photo next to a dead combatant but said he did not text it or post it to social media. The congressman said “a lot of us have done the exact same thing,” referring to fellow service members in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hunter has enough of his own legal problems without adding to them with a potential admission of guilt in other areas. His own trial for illegal conversion of campaign contributions to personal use — allegedly $250,000 — starts later this year in federal court. Hunter and his wife Margaret, also charged, have had little comment on the case, including at this town hall meeting in which Hunter defended Gallagher from his own combat experiences.
This might backfire on Gallagher, who has argued that the charges were the result of lies from his unit intended to remove him from their command. His family has been pressing for a presidential pardon, and Donald Trump has indicated an openness to the idea. Trump has already ordered Gallagher transferred from the brig to more comfortable environs in a military hospital pending the court-martial. The hints of potential clemency has already prompted criticism of Trump; if it turns out that one of Gallagher’s highest-profile defenders has questionable conduct in combat himself, that’s going to make a clemency action a little costlier. (On the other hand, perhaps Trump might simply agree with Hunter while ignoring some of the other charges.)
One has to wonder whether it will backfire on Hunter, too. Even apart from the theoretical exposure to prosecution this admission might create, Hunter’s allegation that “a lot” of fellow combat vets conducted themselves in a similar manner might not sit well with those veterans. Hunter gets a significant amount of his political support from veterans and from those who support them. If he offends those by rushing to paint combat veterans as fellow war criminals, then an acquittal might not help Hunter in his next election as much as he may think. You can bet that Campa-Najjar will be making that argument come the fall of 2020.