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Trump undermined the rule of law with ‘endless flow of nasty comments,’ says Bowe Bergdahl’s attorney

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was spared a prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy when he left his Army post in Afghanistan in 2009. A military judge Friday gave him a dishonorable discharge and busted him to private. Hari Sreenivasan gets reaction from Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, about the decision.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was spared a prison sentence today for deserting in Afghanistan.

    A military judge at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, gave him a dishonorable discharge, lowered his rank to private and ordered him to forfeit pay. The 31-year-old had pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. He left his post in 2009, and was held by the Taliban for five years, before the Obama administration engineered a prisoner swap in 2014.

    President Trump had denounced Bergdahl as a traitor, and he tweeted today –“The decision is a complete and total disgrace to our country and to our military.”

    Hari Sreenivasan spoke a short time ago with Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, who describes surprise at the sentence.

  • Eugene Fidell:

     We didn’t know what to expect because military justice sentencing is so open-ended. So, virtually anything would have surprised us.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I mean, your client was facing life behind bars. What do you think made the difference?

  • Eugene Fidell:

    Well, on one level, I think the judge was quite alert to the very powerful evidence of contrition on the part of Sergeant Bergdahl, as well as the undisputed evidence about the horrible conditions that he survived when he was in the hands of the Haqqani network, his numerous efforts at escape, which is what is expected of G.I.s who fall into enemy hands, and really the grit and courage that he showed once he was a captive.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What was his reaction to the process?

  • Eugene Fidell:

    His reaction to winding things up was, I believe, one of great relief, the uncertainty of the entire process, which has gone on for over three years since he recovered from the Haqqani, but also, in particular, the last day or so during deliberations, when he and everybody else was on pins and needles as to what Judge Nance would do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan: 

    Do you think that then candidate Trump on the campaign trail calling Bowe Bergdahl a dirty rotten traitor played into this decision?

  • Eugene Fidell:

    The judge indicated that he would take into account President Trump’s, you know, endless flow of nasty comments, disparaging comments about Sergeant Bergdahl when the time came to pronounce his sentence.

    And I have to add, the news didn’t stop with the sentencing, because President Trump, once the sentence became public, was at it again and once again described Sergeant Bergdahl in terrible terms, referring to this as an outrageous sentence, and basically undermining the entire rule of law in the U.S. armed forces.

    President Trump has apparently absolutely nothing from this litigation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So the fact that he called, the president today called this today a complete disgrace to our country and to our military, does that factor into your strategy going forward?

  • Eugene Fidell:

    It gives us additional arguments, although, in my personal opinion, we have a winning unlawful command influence argument, even without President Trump’s latest vituperative comments.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are you pursuing the Prisoner of War Medal? And, if so, why?

  • Eugene Fidell:

    Well, I think that Sergeant Bergdahl is entitled to a Prisoner of War Medal.

    He, for all intents and purposes, was a prisoner of war. He was held, in fact, in conditions that are as bad as the conditions any prisoner of war has been held in since the Vietnam era. And we’re definitely going to keep looking at the — his entitlement to a POW Medal.

    I think, at present, the time that Sergeant Bergdahl was held by the Haqqanis is not part of any period of desertion. The judge made a ruling on that. The period of desertion was, in fact, only one day long, according to the court’s findings. And, personally, I think that he’s entitled to the medal.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But will you be challenging the dishonorable discharge? Is that just a matter of course that happens when these verdicts come down?

  • Eugene Fidell:

    Because there is a punitive discharge, in other words, in this case, a dishonorable discharge, Sergeant Bergdahl is entitled to appellate review by the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, thereafter by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and potentially the Supreme Court of the United States.

    A dishonorable discharge involves a lifetime stigma and loss of valuable benefits. And we believe that there are meritorious issues that have to be raised on appeal, and we’re going to raise them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally, you mentioned Bowe Bergdahl’s contrition.

    Given, over the past few weeks, that he’s heard the testimony of those people who were injured in trying to rescue him, what does he say to you? How does he plan to try to repay them?

  • Eugene Fidell:

    Well, it’s not a question of repaying. And I think obviously cannot compromise the confidential of my communications with Sergeant Bergdahl.

    But what I can tell is, what he said in the courtroom, he said that he was extremely upset about the fact that people were injured searching for him.

    I think his contrition is very, very clear. He, I think, has felt that extremely deeply. And the fact that he pleaded guilty without the protection afforded by a pretrial agreement speaks volumes about his willingness to accept responsibility.

    You don’t plead guilty unless you feel guilty, and you feel that you meet the standards that have been set by the judge under the applicable rules in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Eugene Fidell, thanks so much.

  • Eugene Fidell:

    My pleasure.

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