President Donald Trump’s comments about a U.S. Army deserter and a suspected New York City terrorist sparked a debate Thursday at the pre-trial of the alleged conspirators of the 9/11 attacks.
Defense lawyers for the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and others argued that the death penalty should be dropped from consideration, or the case dropped altogether, saying Trump's past tweets could influence the jury.
The fiery exchange at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was over Trump’s tweets concerning Bowe Bergdahl, a military deserter who was captured by the Taliban, and Sayfullo Saipov, a suspected ISIS terrorist who allegedly drove a truck through a bike lane last Halloween, killing eight people and injuring 12.
“The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military,” Trump tweeted shortly after a military judge ruled to dishonorably discharge Bergdahl but spare him of prison time.
In the case of Saipov, Trump suggested the death penalty shortly after the attack, before the suspect was officially charged with a crime.
“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” Trump tweeted. “Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system.”
A lawyer for Mohammed urged the military commission, led by the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, argued that the president's attitude toward those only suspected of crimes made the death penalty consideration, if not the case itself, hard to justify, the Miami Herald reported.
But prosecutor Bob Swann downplayed the influence of the president’s past social media commentary, insisting that the jury of U.S. military officers would be objective and reach their verdict based on the evidence presented.
Even the judge took a shot at Trump over his criticism regarding the handling of the Bergdahl case, saying “The president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, feels necessary to criticize a colonel of the United States Army for a decision that we all know he's empowered to make."
Defense attorney David Nevin said that, in the case of the New York City attack, “The commander-in-chief is telling them the result that he wants here, that is a death penalty.” He also pointed out that Trump has complained that war-court proceedings were too slow.
The prosecutor said the issue of the president’s tweets could be mitigated during the jury-selection process. Jury members "will decide the death issue based on a host of other things. Not just a few comments made by the president," Swann said, the Herald reported.
Swann was also asked by the judge whether it’s appropriate to state that “a guy who is presumed innocent should get the death penalty” – a reference to Trump’s call for the death penalty for Saipov.
“No, sir,” the prosecutor replied, noting that there will be more similar public remarks before jury selection in the 9/11 case, according to the Herald.
Asked how to stop the president from possibly tainting the 9/11 trial, for which a start date hasn't been specified yet, the judge said "I have ways to stop it.”
He added: "With all due respect to the commander-in-chief, if he wants to interject himself into this process by making these kind of comments, it is my job to make sure this process is still fair."