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

Escondido, California (CNN)There are few sitting members of Congress who seem more willing to risk their reelection prospects than Duncan D. Hunter, the rebel from east San Diego County who represents the strongest Republican district in California.

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.