President Obama’s Sexual-Assault Rhetoric Has Unintended Consequences

by Katherine Connell

The New York Times reports that comments President Obama made about sexual assault in the military are having the opposite effect that he intended. The president told a reporter in May, “If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”

It turns out his words as commander-in-chief carry more weight than he sometimes realizes:

In at least a dozen sexual assault cases since the president’s remarks at the White House in May, judges and defense lawyers have said that Mr. Obama’s words as commander in chief amounted to “unlawful command influence,” tainting trials as a result. Military law experts said that those cases were only the beginning and that the president’s remarks were certain to complicate almost all prosecutions for sexual assault.

“Unlawful command influence” refers to actions of commanders that could be interpreted by jurors as an attempt to influence a court-martial, in effect ordering a specific outcome. Mr. Obama, as commander in chief of the armed forces, is considered the most powerful person to wield such influence.

The president’s remarks might have seemed innocuous to civilians, but military law experts say defense lawyers will seize on the president’s call for an automatic dishonorable discharge, the most severe discharge available in a court-martial, arguing that his words will affect their cases.

Administration officials insist that the president meant only “to demonstrate his concern about the issue” and that his comments “were not intended to recommend penalties for offenders.”

White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told the Times, “The president was absolutely not trying to be prescriptive. He was listing a range of examples of how offenders could be held accountable.”

In his May remarks the president emphasized that he had “no tolerance” for sexual assault in the military and said that, as commander-in-chief, he wanted anyone who had experienced it to know that “I’ve got their backs.”