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Trump comments on U.S. soldier, Huawei court cases latest in a pattern

Just days after saying he would intervene in the case of Huawei executive Meng Zhanzou if it was advantageous, Donald Trump on Sunday said he would be reviewing the situation involving a U.S. soldier accused of killing a suspected bomb maker in Afghanistan, the latest examples of the U.S. president politicizing court proceedings.

Trump has had no compunction weighing in on military tribunals, criminal and civil cases

Over the past week, President Donald Trump has commented on ongoing cases involving U.S. army officer Matthew Golsteyn as well as Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Even for regular consumers of U.S. President Donald Trump's Twitter account, his tweet on Sunday that the sketches of "Democrat spin machine" Saturday Night Live should be "tested in courts" proved baffling.

But the most serious one from his tweet salvo on Sunday, from a legal perspective, may have been his pledge to review the case of a former U.S. army commando being charged with murder, raising questions about the possibility Trump could jeopardize the ongoing military legal proceedings.

Trump tweeted that "at the request of many," he will examine allegations that Mathew Golsteyn hunted down and killed a suspected bomb maker in Afghanistan. The president tweeted that Golsteyn is a "U.S. Military hero" who could face the death penalty "from our own government."

Any review or intervention by Trump could constitute unlawful command influence and threaten the case against Golsteyn.

Previous presidents have commented on cases before the courts. 

Richard Nixon famously declared Charles Manson guilty before the murder trial was complete, while Barack Obama expressed his empathy for shooting victim Trayvon Martin and his family before the teen's killer, George Zimmerman, had his day in court.

But Trump has proved unconventional in many respects compared to his predecessors, and has shown no sign of halting his habit of commenting on ongoing cases, with two huge examples in the past week.

Meng's detainment in Vancouver has become a political hot potato. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Trump, of course, has weighed in on prosecutions where his businesses and political future have been threatened — he once suggested a judge's Mexican heritage may have influenced an adverse ruling in a Trump University class action lawsuit, given the presidential candidate's known views about a Mexican border wall. 

As well, he has continued to cast aspersions as president on the FBI and his own Justice Department in relation to investigations into potential co-operation during the election between Trump advocates and Russia.

As potentially troublesome as his Russia tweets may be, here are some examples where he's had no personal stake in the outcome.

Mathew Golsteyn

Trump, apparently incited by a Fox News segment that aired on the same day, said Sunday he will be "reviewing" the case of the former U.S. army commando being charged with murder.

In a statement Sunday, Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesperson, said "the allegations against Maj. Matt Golsteyn are a law enforcement matter. The Department of Defence will respect the integrity of this process and provide updates when appropriate."

U.S army Capt. Mathew Golsteyn, right, shown on Jan. 4, 2011, during a ceremony for 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C. He's accused of hunting down and killing a suspected bomb maker in Afghanistan. (James Robinson/The Fayetteville Observer via AP)

An army statement on Friday said Golsteyn was charged with killing the Afghan during the major's 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. Golsteyn was leading a team of Army Special Forces troops at the time, and believed the bomb maker was responsible for an explosion that killed two U.S. marines.

The Golsteyn case has bounced around since 2011, when he told the CIA in a job interview that he had shot and killed the man.

Meng Wanzhou

Canada recently detained the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei on an extradition request from the U.S. Meng has been accused of a scheme to bypass American sanctions on Iran and was released on $10-million bail.

The case was immediately a political hot potato, with China demanding her release, admonishing both the U.S. and Canada. Amid the case involving Meng, it was revealed that two Canadians had been detained.

Despite the prospect of a fraught extradition process, Trump added kindling to the fire with comments in a Reuters interview on Dec. 11.

"If I think it's good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made — which is a very important thing, what's good for national security — I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary," he said.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was quick to react when asked about his comments the following day.

"Our extradition partners should not seek to politicize the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice and following the rule of law," she said.

Kate Steinle-Jose Ines Garcia Zarate case

Trump made the Steinle shooting death in 2015 in San Francisco a tent pole in his presidential campaign, portraying it in broad strokes as a case highlighting what he saw as the scourges of illegal immigration and liberal cities that provide them sanctuary.

While Garcia Zarate had been deported numerous times for non-violent offences, the case in San Francisco was not so straightforward. The gun in question originally belonged to a U.S. government employee, who failed to secure it, and the fatal shot was a ricochet. A Canadian firearms expert testified that an accidental misfire was common for that particular weapon.

A jury didn't believe that Garcia Zarate intentionally fired into a crowd, acquitting him of the most serious charges, including murder, in the death of Steinle, 32, who had been walking with her dad and a friend along the pier.

Trump called the verdict "disgraceful" and said "his exoneration is a complete travesty of justice." But Garcia Zarate wasn't fully exonerated, and was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.

Instead of again deporting him, the Justice Department quickly announced plans to prosecute him at the federal level on similar gun possession charges.

Bowe Bergdahl

Ultimately, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy, and received no additional prison time, a judge deeming his contrition and five years spent in torturous conditions as a Taliban detainee in Afghanistan a sufficient punishment.

Trump called the verdict "a complete and total disgrace to our country and our military," an unsurprising comment given his commentary on the soldier and his case.

Throw him out of the plane. Should we give him a parachute or not?- Trump in 2015 on what to do with Bowe Bergdahl

Trump at various points during his presidential campaign said Bergdahl deserved the death penalty and was a "dirty rotten traitor."

At one campaign rally, Trump asked the crowd: "Throw him out of the plane. Should we give him a parachute or not?"

The defence unsuccessfully argued for a dismissal, making the case that Trump's comments prejudiced Bergdahl's ability to receive a fair hearing in a military court.

Sayfullo Saipov

Trump argued in 2017 that a suspect in a deadly truck attack in New York City needed to face "quick justice" hours after the attack, and that he would "certainly consider" sending him to Guantanamo Bay because he was suspected of terrorist offences. 

Separately, he opined on Twitter that suspect Saipov should get the death penalty.

The White House, in a media briefing, offered support for the Guantanamo possibility, saying it considered Saipov to be an "enemy combatant."

Trump backtracked later in the week. Many detainees at Guantanamo have languished for years without their cases being adjudicated, while in contrast, a number of terrorist cases have been resolved in Federal Court in New York.

Saipov was charged in Federal Court with providing material support to a terrorist group, and committing violence and destruction of motor vehicles, resulting in death.

About the Author

Chris Iorfida

Senior Writer

Chris Iorfida has worked in TV news, radio, print and digital in his journalism career. He has been with CBC since 2002 and written on subjects as diverse as politics, business, health, sports, arts and entertainment, science and technology.

With files from The Associated Press

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