FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The long-awaited sentencing of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was delayed Monday after a legal battle erupted over the word "but" in President Donald Trump's most recent remarks about the case.
Bergdahl's defense team argued that their client could not get a fair shake from the court because Trump, during a Rose Garden appearance on Oct. 16, at first said he couldn't talk about the case and then added: "But I think people have heard my comments in the past."
Trump has described Bergdahl as a “dirty rotten traitor” and called for the 31-year-old Idaho native to be executed by firing squad or thrown from a plane minus a parachute.
The defense showed footage of Trump talking last week and video from December 2015 when then-candidate Trump lambasted Bergdahl and the deal that got him sprung from the Taliban.
Prosecutors argued that Trump in the Rose Garden was trying to distance himself from his campaign trail comments and that the "but" didn't undermine that attempt.
Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, the military judge who holds Bergdahl's fate in his hands, said he had a "hard time" buying the prosecutors' argument. Nance said Trump's most recent comments were the equivalent of the president saying, "I shouldn't comment on that, but I think everyone knows what I think on Bowe Bergdahl."
And what Trump thinks is key because, as commander in chief, he is Nance's boss as well as the prosecutors'.
Nance said there is a vital public interest in "maintaining confidence in the military justice system" and the public "is going to be influenced by context."
Before concluding the 59-minute proceeding and recessing the court until Wednesday, Nance also offered Bergdahl the chance to withdraw his guilty plea. He refused.
His lawyers have argued that the only way to ensure a fair sentence is take any possible jail time off the table.
Nance, who has wide latitude over sentencing, could jail Bergdahl for life.
The issue of Trump’s campaign trail comments came up last week when Bergdahl entered his guilty plea without striking a deal with prosecutors, leaving his sentence up to Nance.
Bergdahl’s lawyers argued Trump’s remarks while running for office made a fair trial impossible because as commander in chief, everybody involved in the trial answers to him.
Nance said Trump’s comments were “disturbing and disappointing” but did not constitute unlawful command influence because they were uttered before he was elected.
Bergdahl fell into Taliban hands after he vanished on June 30, 2009, from a post in the remote Paktika Province. He had set off with the intention of reaching other U.S. Army commanders and blowing the whistle on what he considered misconduct in his unit.
Prosecutors, however, said Bergdahl deserted and his decision to walk sparked intense search-and-rescue missions during which some service members were seriously injured.
“At the time, I had no intention of causing search and recovery operations,” Bergdahl said. “I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn’t believe they would have reason to search for one private.”
For the next five years, Bergdahl was tortured and abused and forced to spend long stretches of time in solitary confinement, including three years in a metal cage. He was released in 2014 in a prisoner swap for which President Barack Obama was roundly criticized by Trump and the Republicans.
In an interview on Sunday with The Sunday Times, Bergdahl shrugged off Trump’s taunts.
“He’s a politician,” Bergdahl told The Sunday Times, “but I know I can’t convince the people who say, ‘Just string him up and shoot him.’ So you just move on.”
Morgan Radford reported from Fort Bragg, N.C., and Corky Siemaszko reported from New York.