Duncan Hunter’s defense of accused Navy SEAL brings new scrutiny

Rep. Duncan Hunter

Last year, House leaders stripped Hunter of his committee assignments while he awaits a September trial with his wife on charges of alleged wire fraud, conspiracy to commit crimes against the US, falsification of records, prohibited use of campaign contributions, aiding and abetting — charges they deny. More recently, Hunter made a series of jaw-dropping comments about his own conduct — including taking a photo with a dead enemy combatant — as a Marine while championing the defense of former Navy SEAL Edward “Eddie” Gallagher. Gallagher, who has pleaded not guilty, is facing trial next week for charges that amount to war crimes and is under consideration for a pardon by President Donald Trump.

Hunter faced a closer than expected race in November after the federal charges were filed, even though he argued that they were politically motivated. After Hunter’s recent remarks about his conduct, his Democratic opponent in that race, who is running against Hunter again, Ammar Campa-Najjar, released a statement from Chris Dalton, a Marine Corps veteran who also served in Iraq.

“As a proud veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (the same war in which Duncan Hunter fought), I am greatly disappointed by Congressman Hunter’s recent comments about his own conduct in Iraq,” Dalton said. “American military tradition, American values, and the Uniform of Military Justice demand that we be better than the actions he spoke about from that stage.”

Still, the latest controversy does not seem to have harmed Hunter’s reputation in his district — many voters were not even aware that he made them.

When asked in a CNN telephone interview this week whether he was concerned that his upcoming trial and his blunt comments about his conduct on the battlefield would harm his reelection chances, Hunter answered in one word: “No.”

Asked about his recent assertion that he and his fellow soldiers probably killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians, including women and children as a result of artillery fire, Hunter underscored that he never targeted civilians. He said he was simply offering an unvarnished view of what he witnessed on the battlefield during two combat tours in Iraq.

“Between 2003 and 2010, you had massive conflicts. You had door-to-door fighting; you had artillery; you had lots of bombs being dropped,” Hunter said. “I’m getting the exact numbers, so you guys can have that and talk about the thousands, and thousands, and thousands of civilian deaths — but that’s a byproduct of combat. Period. It’s not a sanitary thing. It’s not the movies.”

“I didn’t say I targeted any civilians,” he said, referring to his controversial interview with the “Zero Blog Thirty: Barstool’s Military Division” podcast. “I said that there were hundreds, if not scores of civilians killed, in our artillery in and around Fallujah,” Hunter said. “I think that’s absolutely correct and that’s a byproduct of war, period.”

Defending Gallagher

The veteran, who also did a tour in Afghanistan and became the first combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in Congress, thrust himself into the national headlines again with his fierce defense of Gallagher, who faces a court-martial trial June 10 at the Naval Base San Diego for allegedly stabbing and murdering a wounded ISIS prisoner in his custody in May 2017 after he and his fellow SEALS administered medical aid.

Gallagher pleaded not guilty to the charges, which also include — in separate incidents near Mosul in June and July 2017– shooting an elderly man and a young woman from a sniper tower.

Relieved of his committee duties in the US House, Hunter has become an outspoken defender Gallagher and other soldiers accused of wrongdoing.

The congressman said he has championed the Gallagher case, in part, because the judge allowed him and other members of Congress to see video evidence and images that are part of protected Navy court files not available to the public. A Navy spokesman said he did not have any details of what was contained in the protected court materials that members of Congress were permitted to see.

“Me and every other congressman that saw those walked away saying he’s an innocent man who’s being railroaded by the Navy, NCIS and the prosecution,” Hunter said this week.

Hunter has forcefully argued that he does not believe that Gallagher stabbed the ISIS prisoner with his knife, despite the prosecutor’s assertion that his own platoon members saw the killing and shared what they saw despite him threatening them to keep silent. And he added this week that even if everything that the Navy prosecutors alleged was true, he still believes Gallagher should be exonerated.

The 42-year-old congressman, who enlisted in the Marines because of the 9/11 attacks and was in the thick of the 2004 battle in Fallujah, says that defending fellow veterans is at the very core of why he got into politics. His father Duncan Hunter, a veteran and revered former congressman, nudged the younger Hunter into the race when he was about to vacate the seat he had held for 28 years.

“He said if you don’t do it, someone else will and they’re not going to have the experience that you have,” Hunter told the “Zero Blog Thirty” hosts in their recent interview with him. “You (had) millions of people at that point who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and (the elder Hunter) said ‘You can represent them.’ So that was the impetus for me doing it.”

Hunter added that in Washington, he realized that you had “a bunch of people who don’t know what war is” making decisions.

Over the course of his own combat tours, he defined ‘the Hunter doctrine’ as: “You kick ass and you leave.”

“You go in fast and hard, you kill people, you hit them in the face and then you get out,” Hunter said in the podcast. “And you say, ‘If you do it again, we’re going to do it again. We’re not going to stay in your town. We’re not going to drive water and gas from point A to point B, so you can IED us. We’re not going to be on the street corners so you can shoot us, and IED us. We’re going to hurt you and then we’re going to leave. And if you want to be nice to America, we’ll be nice to you. If you don’t want to be nice to us, we’re going to slap you again.’ ”

In his hard-charging public comments about the Gallagher case, Hunter has called the naval prosecutors corrupt and compared some of Gallagher’s conduct in battle to his own, noting that, he too, posed for a photo with a dead enemy combatant.

On Monday, a military judge affirmed some of Hunter’s concerns about the prosecution team by removing the lead prosecutor from the case after Gallagher’s attorney alleged that the prosecution team had engaged in an unlawful cyber campaign that harmed Gallagher’s chances of a fair trial. In his ruling Monday, the judge, Capt. Aaron Rugh, said prosecutor Chris Czaplak’s involvement “may reasonably create a conflict requiring his withdrawal under due process.”

Hunter’s political future

Hunter has long staked his political reputation on his blunt talk, his willingness to take on authority figures and hallowed institutions of government.

First elected in 2008, Hunter was one of the first sitting congressmen to endorse Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. The two men have displayed similar bravado in their public personas, showing their disdain for the nation’s institutions of justice and stoking fears of minority groups for political gain.

Defending his reliably Republican seat during the 2018 midterm campaign, Hunter ran the most brazenly anti-Muslim campaign ads in the country by attempting to portray his Democratic opponent, a Christian who is the son of a Mexican-American mother and Palestinian father, as a national security threat. At one point during the campaign, Hunter sent literature billed as a “security alert” that drew attention to Campa-Najjar’s Middle Eastern roots and the potential “dangers” of electing him to Congress.

Taking a page from Trump by railing against “the deep state” and what he describes as a corrupt Department of Justice, Hunter narrowly defeated Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar in a much closer race than expected in their congressional district, which covers much of northern and eastern San Diego County.

In the midst of a blue wave that flipped seven of the most competitive House seats in the California, Hunter won with 51.7% of the vote to Campa-Najjar’s 48.3%.

By comparison, in 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 50th Congressional district by 15 points. That same year, Hunter beat his Democratic opponent 63.5% to 36.5%.

Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at UC San Diego, said the 2018 result showed how deeply the corruption charges have damaged Hunter politically.

“Even given the indictment and all of the scandal surrounding him, I was shocked at how narrowly Representative Hunter won in 2018 in such a safely Republican district,” Kousser said. “That result clearly announced this as one of the few remaining red seats in California that Democrats have a chance of taking in 2020, and the Hunter trial this fall will certainly shape the dynamics of that race and even who will be running.”

In the indictment, Hunter and his wife were accused of using campaign funds to live well beyond their means, alleging that they “knowingly conspired with each other” to convert campaign funds to personal use. Among the charges allegedly made with campaign funds: a 2015 family vacation in Italy over Thanksgiving totaling more than $14,000; a vacation in Hawaii costing $6,500; as well as thousands of dollars on routine purchases at Costco, Walmart and Michael’s craft store.

Campa-Najjar, who worked for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and in his administration, has already announced that he will challenge Hunter again. Several top Republicans in the district may also take on Hunter.

Former Temecula Mayor Matt Rahn has filed paperwork to run in the 50th district, a move he describes as exploratory while he watches the developments in Hunter’s federal trial. Some Republican officials are also encouraging well-known NewsRadio host and former city councilman Carl DeMaio to run for Hunter’s seat.

Rahn said in an interview that he is concerned that the 50th District, which covers much of inland San Diego County, lost its voice in Congress after Hunter was removed from his committees. He cited the district’s federal funding needs — including alleviating congestion on the I-15 corridor and mitigating the risks of brush fires across the district — as a top reason he would run for Hunter’s seat.

In interviews last week, many voters in the 50th District had not heard anything about Hunter’s recent admission that he, like Gallagher, had taken a picture with a dead enemy combatant. Even though the comments made national news, many voters said they were not familiar with Hunter’s background at all, or the federal corruption charges that he is facing.

Before the election last year, the accusations that Hunter misused campaign funds seemed more top of mind for voters. In interviews with dozens of voters in the 50th district, many Republicans and independents said they were uncomfortable with the charges against Hunter — and the fact that he had suggested his wife was to blame for the inappropriate spending on the campaign credit card.

But many voters also told CNN they wanted to preserve the presumption of innocence and see the trial play out. Often, they said they would vote for Hunter anyway in 2018 because they viewed their vote more as a show of support for Trump and keeping the US House under Republican control.

Hunter’s more recent comments about his conduct as a Marine do not seem to have generated much controversy beyond politic circles in his district, which has a huge population of veterans.

“I don’t think it will have any effect, especially in San Diego County where we’ve got all military,” said Robert Banks, a 74-year-old Republican voter from Escondido, when asked about Hunter’s comments that he had posed with a dead enemy combatant. “You have to understand, their buddies have died because of these bastards. And so what they’re doing (when taking pictures) is saying, ‘I got the guy that killed our buddy.’ ”

John J. Pitney, Jr., the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, noted in an interview with CNN that he was old enough to remember public reaction to the March 1968 My Lai Massacre, where Lieutenant William Calley ordered his men to kill 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Polling at the time showed substantial support for Calley, Pitney Jr. said.

“Most voters have never been in combat, and they hesitate to judge those who have,” Pitney said. “The charges related to campaign finance have hurt (Hunter) much more. His vote share plunged between 2016 and 2018, and without a committee assignment, he has not been able to serve effectively. Voters are a lot more comfortable judging a politician for sleazy campaign practices than judging a Marine for what he did in combat.”

‘So do I get judged, too?’

In his unqualified defense of Gallagher, Hunter has made it clear that he intends to describe the gritty reality of war that he witnessed in Iraq — even if it draws critical press coverage and scrutiny of his own actions.

It was while defending Gallagher last month at a town hall in Ramona, California, that Hunter told the crowd that he had taken a picture with a dead enemy combatant.

Hunter sparked the latest controversy by telling the “Zero Blog Thirty” hosts that as an artillery officer in Iraq: “We fired hundreds of rounds into Fallujah, killed probably hundreds of civilians, if not scores, if not hundreds of civilians. Probably killed women and children, if there were any left in the city when we invaded. So do I get judged, too?”

And in a recent USA Today op-ed urging Trump to pardon Gallagher, Hunter argued that it is part of Trump’s constitutional duty to ensure that “America’s warfighters receive a fair legal process.”

To that end, Hunter also recently started a “Justice for Warriors” caucus in Congress to examine the cases of soldiers accused of wrongdoing and to potentially draw public attention to those where he feels charges are unfair.

“What this caucus is going to allow us to do is have members of Congress sit down and review these cases individually,” Hunter told CNN this week. “Look at these cases with a critical eye and try to be a voice for the war fighter who doesn’t have a voice back home. Because 99.9% of Americans will never see what I’ve seen… They’ll never see what Chief Gallagher has seen. Yet, we’re judged by them in the context of sitting back here in the United States watching movies about war.”

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