Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will appear Monday before a military judge who will determine his punishment for endangering comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan. Before delivering his sentence, the judge will have to resolve a last-minute defense argument that new comments by President Donald Trump have tainted the case.
Bergdahl faces up to life in prison after pleading guilty last week to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Prosecutors made no deal to cap his punishment, so the judge has wide leeway to decide his sentence after a hearing expected to take several days.
The judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, is expected to weigh factors including Bergdahl’s willingness to admit guilt, his five years of captivity in the hands of the Taliban and its allies, and the serious wounds that several service members suffered while searching for him.
Prosecutors are expected to put on evidence or testimony about soldiers and a Navy SEAL who were seriously wounded by gunfire during these search missions, including an Army National Guard sergeant who was shot in the head, suffering a traumatic brain injury that put him in a wheelchair, unable to speak.
Bergdahl, 31, from Hailey, Idaho, was captured soon after walking off his remote post in 2009. He has said he was caged, kept in darkness and beaten, and tried to escape more than a dozen times. He said his intention had been to alert other commanders to what he saw as problems with his unit. Still, when he pleaded guilty, he told the judge that his actions were inexcusable.
President Barack Obama brought Bergdahl home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” who deserved to be executed by firing squad or thrown out of a plane without a parachute.
Nance ruled in February that those campaign statements were “disturbing and disappointing,” but didn’t amount to unlawful command influence, noting that Trump made the comments before he became president.
Defense lawyers argued last week that Trump’s views haven’t changed as commander in chief, citing his reaction to Bergdahl’s guilty plea. Trump told reporters he couldn’t say anything more about the case, “but I think people have heard my comments in the past.”
The White House issued a statement Friday that, without mentioning Bergdahl by name, said any military justice case must be “resolved on its own facts.” Prosecutors cited that statement in opposing the latest defense arguments.