President Donald Trump's scathing criticism of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will prevent the soldier from getting a fair trial on charges he endangered comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan, Bergdahl's attorneys said Friday.
In a motion filed shortly after Trump was sworn in, defense lawyers asked a military judge to dismiss the charges against Bergdahl and argued the Republican's comments have violated his due process rights and amount to unlawful command influence.
Trump's negative comments about Bergdahl, including calling him a traitor, take on new importance now that he is commander-in-chief. According to legal experts, Trump's disparaging comments could persuade potential military jurors who may feel obligated to agree with their new leader.
There is precedent for a military judge to decide a president's comments have tainted a prosecution. In 2013, a Navy judge cited comments by then-President Barack Obama when he said two defendants in sexual assault cases couldn't be punitively discharged if they were found guilty because of Obama's public comments about cracking down on sexual assault.
Bergdahl's trial is scheduled for April at Fort Bragg on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The latter carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Bergdahl, who is from Idaho, has said he walked off his post in 2009 to cause an alarm and draw attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.
He was held captive by the Taliban and its allies for five years. The Obama administration's decision in May 2014 to exchange Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners prompted some Republicans to accuse Obama of jeopardizing the nation's safety.
Trump said repeatedly while campaigning that Bergdahl is a traitor.
"Remember the old days? A deserter, what happened?" he said in July before pantomiming pulling a trigger and adding: "Bang."
Defense lawyers have noted several-dozen similar instances of Trump's criticism.