FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s scathing criticism of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl won’t prevent the soldier from receiving a fair sentence for endangering comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009, a judge ruled Monday.
The judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, said the court has not been directly affected by Trump’s remarks, nor would the comments cause a reasonable member of the public to have doubts about the fairness of the military justice system. He had to consider both questions in deciding on whether actual or apparent unlawful command influence was interfering in the case.
“I am completely unaffected by any opinions President Trump may have about Sgt. Bergdahl,” the judge said. He added that prosecutors had convinced him that the Trump comments won’t put “an intolerable strain” on the public perception of military courts.
Then-Republican nominee Trump repeatedly called Bergdahl a traitor on the campaign trial and suggested that he be shot or thrown from a plane without a parachute. Trump revived those comments when Bergdahl pleaded guilty on Oct. 16 by saying at a news conference that he thinks people are aware of what he said before.
The White House later released a statement that, while not mentioning Bergdahl by name, said that every military justice case should be decided by military personnel using their own judgment. Nance cited that statement in his ruling.
Nance did say he would keep Trump’s comments in mind as he weighs other factors that will go into his sentencing decision. The hearing is expected to last several more days.
Those mitigating factors, such as Bergdahl’s mental health or his time in captivity by Taliban allies, would encourage leniency. On the other hand, prosecutors are presenting evidence of wounds to several service members who searched for Bergdahl as aggravating evidence to push for a stiff punishment.
Bergdahl faces a maximum of life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl was held by Taliban allies for five years after he left his remote post.
Following Nance’s ruling, prosecutors called their final witness, Shannon Allen, to discuss a traumatic brain injury suffered by her husband when he was shot in the head during a search mission for Bergdahl. National Guard Master Sgt. Mark Allen was on a mission to gather information in two villages in July 2009 when his unit was ambushed by insurgents using small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The soldier is unable to speak, uses a wheelchair and needs help with everyday tasks, his wife testified.
Shannon Allen’s voice faltered when she referred to the brain injury’s effect on his interactions with their daughter, who was an infant when he was wounded. She is now 9 and Mark Allen is in his mid-30s.
“He’s not able to reach out for her or talk to her,” she said, tearing up and pausing to take a deep breath. “He’s never had the chance to really play with her or help coach her sports or ask about her day.”
Before the injury, her husband was an outdoorsman who was “very loud and outgoing,” she said. He loved playing outside with his son from another relationship.
His wife said he can smile, make eye contact and sometimes make a thumbs up, but he has little communication beyond that. Prosecutors showed a video of Shannon Allen and a home care nurse going through their routine of rolling his limp body into a sling to get him out of bed and into a wheelchair each day.
“He lost me as a wife, essentially, because instead of being his wife I am his caregiver,” she said. “I mean, we can’t even hold hands anymore.”
While Bergdahl acknowledged at his plea hearing that his actions triggered the search missions that resulted in the wounds, his lawyers argue there’s a limit to his responsibility for a lengthy chain of events that includes enemy attacks and decisions by the U.S. military commanders who led the searches.
The defense was expected to start calling witnesses Monday.
Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment, so the judge has wide leeway to determine his sentence.
The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, has said he was caged by his captors, kept in darkness and beaten. He said he tried to escape more than a dozen times before President Barack Obama brought him home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.