CJR Outbox

Journalism still has power. But not the way you’d hope. 

January 8, 2020

Pete Hegseth, the Fox News personality, Iraq War veteran, and one-time guard at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, often receives compliments for his commentary on Fox & Friends, the popular morning show Hegseth frequently guest-hosts, from President Trump.

Hegseth was briefly considered by Trump to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. Instead he has used his platform on the president’s favorite show—and access to the man himself—to run the kind of journalistic campaign that used, more usually, to be pointed at water contamination in Flint, Michigan or public corruption in Bell, California. 

It has centered on the cases of three men accused or convicted of murder while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan: Eddie Gallagher, Clint Lorance, and Matt Golsteyn. Hegseth’s attitude was that the men accused had done nothing less noble than falter slightly and understandably in the fog of war. 

Hegseth’s successful campaign ran contrary to the very clear wishes of the Pentagon in all three cases; the secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, was fired in November over his pursuit of the Gallagher case, and has not been replaced as of this writing.

The campaign appears to have started on December 15, 2018, on Fox & Friends Saturday, during a segment about Army Major Golsteyn, who was being prosecuted following an admission he made in 2016, on camera during an interview with Fox’s Bret Baier. 

In 2010, Golsteyn said, he had hunted down and killed a man he suspected of making bombs for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Golsteyn had also admitted to the murder in a job interview with the CIA. 

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The Baier interview led to the immediate reopening of the case against him and ultimately his prosecution; a previous investigation based on the CIA interview had taken away his Silver Star medal and his Special Forces “tab.” Hegseth briefly mentioned Gallagher in the December 15 report, which ran under the chyron “US Military Hero Charged With Murder.” 

The next day, Trump tweeted, “At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas. @PeteHegseth @FoxNews.” 

A week later, an apparently encouraged Hegseth returned with a segment interviewing Golsteyn’s and Gallagher’s wives alongside Lorance’s mother, primarily about the emotional strain placed on the men and their families by their arrest and prosecution for “a split-second decision he made on the battlefield,” as Hegseth characterized Lorance’s two killings. 

Nine soldiers from Lorance’s Army platoon, most of whom were not granted immunity from prosecution, testified against him, saying he ordered them to shoot three unarmed men who did not pose a threat to them. Two of the victims died from their wounds, and Lorance was convicted of murder and, for which he was stripped of his rank of first lieutenant and imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth from 2013 until last year.

But it was Gallagher, whose high-profile trial began last January, who would prove to be the star of the show. A Navy SEAL chief petty officer, Gallagher was accused by his platoon-mates of especially gruesome crimes: stabbing a wounded 15-year-old combatant to death while he was receiving medical treatment, shooting a “school-age” girl and an elderly man from a sniper’s nest, and “Indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire,” according to the New York Times’s Dave Philipps, who has led the news media on the stories of killings and their legal fallout in much the same way that Hegseth has led the conservative media in marathon apologies for their perpetrators. 

When the Gallagher story broke, Philipps and others reported on the unusual nature of the testimony from fellow SEALs against one of their own—a personal and professional risk to the men who came forward. The case attracted prominent right-wing defenders besides Hegseth, too, notably Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw and scandal-plagued California representative Duncan Hunter, both of whom appeared on Fox to advocate for Gallagher.

Led by Hegseth, the sympathetic coverage earned Gallagher a number of special favors, even before his exoneration. Trump tweeted during the trial that he was ordering Gallagher released from the brig to the barracks at the San Diego Marine corps base where he was imprisoned, tagging Fox & Friends in the tweet. When Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious charges and allowed to remain a marine, the president congratulated Gallagher, saying he was “glad [he] could help.” 

Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious charges after another man, Corey Scott, who testified only after being granted immunity, confessed to killing the teenager, saying he had murdered the boy before Gallagher stabbed him. The confession contradicted the word of seven of Gallagher’s fellow SEALs and Scott’s own statements to prosecutors. Ultimately, Gallagher was convicted only of improperly taking a photo with a human casualty (“I got him with my hunting knife,” read a text accompanying one of the photos of the dead boy recovered from Gallagher’s phone). 

The acquittal was not enough for Hegseth, who personally lobbied Trump to restore Gallagher’s rank. This time the President did not merely speak to Hegseth but through him: “I was able to confirm yesterday from the president of the United States himself, the commander-in-chief, that action is imminent especially on the two cases of Clint Lorance and Matt Golsteyn, and restoring the rank of Eddie Gallagher,” Hegseth told the Fox & Friends audience on November 4.

Hegseth described the charges as “so-called war crimes” on November 8 before interviewing mercenary commander Erik Prince, whose soldiers of fortune were charged with some of the worst abuses during the Iraq war, and who was personally referred to the Treasury department for suspected violations of US sanctions on Venezuela last month. “They forget who the commander-in-chief is,” Prince said of Pentagon officials who had expressed worry over the president’s forthcoming pardon. “It is absolutely his right to review overreach and micromanagement of troops in combat.” Navy secretary Spencer tried to cut a deal with Gallagher that would see him retired from the SEALs; Spencer, not Gallagher, was fired as a result.

On November 15 last year, Trump intervened to free Lorance from prison for murder, halt Golsteyn’s prosecution for murder by executive fiat, and revoke all punitive action taken against Gallagher, now a Republican mascot, and, of course, occasional guest of honor on Fox & Friends

Throughout his crusade, Hegseth portrayed Gallagher and his fellow beneficiaries of Trump’s largesse as persecuted tough guys, like the renegade cops in a 1990’s action movie—mavericks who get results. It was the perfect bait. Trump tweeted on October 12, a little more than a month before pardoning Lorance and Gallagher and ending Golsteyn’s prosecution. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill! @PeteHegseth.”

Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.