(CNN) - 2020 Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg accused President Donald Trump on Friday of "eroding the integrity of the military" for pardoning or considering pardons for service members who were convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has increasingly leaned on his own military service -- he served in the United States Navy Reserve in Afghanistan in 2014 -- to explain a series of his personal views and policies, including his opinion on the use of force and Trump receiving multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War.
But on Friday in New Hampshire, Buttigieg took a step further by suggesting the President was undercutting the standing of the military by raising the possibility of pardoning a series of service members either convicted of crimes or going through the military justice system.
Trump requested paperwork allowing him to quickly pardon service members either facing trial or those who have already been convicted, The New York Times reported last week. And earlier this month, Trump pardoned Michael Behenna, a former first lieutenant in the US Army convicted of killing an Iraqi prisoner.
Buttigieg's comments came after he asked a room full of veterans if they had even been called war criminals or criticized for their service. Many raised their hands and said yes.
"The reason that we can stand up tall and say that's not true, that having served honorably in the military, couldn't be more different than being a war criminal is because if we ever did anything that was wrong the United States under the Uniform Code of Military Justice would have held us accountable," Buttigieg said. "And so when the President joins in with this idea, that it's just natural, that if you serve in conflict, that you're going to wind up murdering somebody, he is eroding the integrity of the military, and insulting the Constitution."
Buttigieg was responding to Trump's comments at the White House Friday that he was looking at pardoning people who fought "hard and long" and that the US "teach them how to be great fighters and then when they fight sometimes they get treated really unfairly."
Buttigieg also slammed Trump's lack of service during his answer, seemingly seeking to undercut the President's handling of the military by saying Trump "faked a disability in order to get out of serving when it was his turn ... because he was a child millionaire."
Trump attended the private New York Military Academy in high school, but he avoided the draft through a series of education and health deferments.
After receiving four deferments due to education, Trump was diagnosed with bone spurs in his heels at the age of 22 in 1968, seven years before the Vietnam War ended. The diagnosis earned him a 1-Y medical deferment, meaning he was barred from military service at the peak of US involvement in the Vietnam War.
Dr. Elysa Braunstein and Sharon Kessel, the daughters of Dr. Larry Braunstein, a podiatrist who died in 2007, told The New York Times in 2018 that their father providing Donald Trump with the diagnosis of bone spurs so he could be exempt from military service. The daughters said he made the diagnosis as a favor to Fred Trump, the President's father.
Buttigieg has worked Trump's lack of service into his stump speech of late and answered a series of questions on Thursday in a public interview with The Washington Post by reflecting on his own service.
"I felt that I was watching Americans exercise a right that I had put my life on the line to defend," Buttigieg said during a Washington Post interview when asked about athletes who kneel to protest police brutality and the mass incarceration of African-Americans.
"The point of defending free speech is not that you expect to be perfectly aligned with every speech that is protected," he added, saying that this dynamic is a "huge part of what makes America, America."
Buttigieg said Friday he worried that Trump's focus on using military force in Iran, despite his lack of service, could lead to a conflict.
"We've seen the president lose control of international situations," Buttigieg said of recent saber-rattling with Iran, including Trump sending 1,500 more troops to the Middle East. "He could absolutely lose control of this. And so it's not just what he want or whether he's actually able to manage the dynamic that he is on, because you're messing with the sort of thing you better know exactly what you're doing. And I do not have confidence in him."
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