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Defense Secretary Says Trump Ordered Him to Allow Navy SEAL, Spencer Gallagher to Keep His Status

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Defense Secretary Says Trump Ordered Him to Allow Navy SEAL, Spencer Gallagher to Keep His Status

2019-11-27 13:24:101 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Mark Esper (Image source: Public domain)

Somehow things turned really messy with regard to the resignation of the Navy Secretary. As is common when it comes to matters that involve the Donald Trump administration, the commander-in-chief is somehow involved. 

What was initially at issue was a disgraced Navy SEAL, Eddie Gallagher. Earlier this month Trump reversed his demotion and pardoned two other service members. All three had been accused of war crimes. This was deeply upsetting to the military. Trump ordered Defense Secretary Mark Esper to allow Gallagher to retain his status and also tried to work a backchannel with the Navy secretary, Richard Spencer. It ended with Spencer's forced resignation.

After Trump reversed Gallagher's demotion and pardoned the other two service members, military leaders warned him it could undermine the armed forces' order and discipline, hurt military justice integrity, and lessen the confidence of U.S. allies and partners. 

Esper said Trump "gave me an order" to allow Gallagher to keep his Navy SEALS Trident pin. "He said, 'What about the pin?  I want Eddie's' — he wanted Eddie Gallagher's pin restored, and I said, 'Roger,  I got it.' " recalled the secretary.

"Gallagher will retain his Trident as the commander-in-chief directed and will retire at the end of this month," he added of the SEAL who posed for a picture next to a dead member of ISIS, an act that is against regulations. This earned him the demotion, though he was acquitted of murder charges. 

But it gets muddier than just Trump's demand. Esper explained he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley were told by someone with the White House that Spencer proposed to Trump how to resolve the differences regarding Gallagher.

"We had no knowledge whatsoever" of the proposal, Esper told reporters on Monday. "We were flabbergasted by it and quite surprised and caught completely off guard." 

Spencer was forced to resign and in his resignation letter said, "I no longer share the same understanding with the commander-in-chief who appointed me, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates  the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag, and my faith to support and defend  the Constitution of the United States."

He continued, by explaining,  "The president deserves and should expect a secretary of the Navy who is aligned with his vision for the future of our force generation and sustainment. Therefore,  with pride in the achievements we've  shared and everlasting faith in the continued service and fidelity of the finest sailors, Marines, and civilian teammates on earth, I hereby acknowledge my termination as United States Secretary of the Navy, to be effective immediately." 

He told CBS in an interview that he "will take the bad on me for not letting [Esper] know I did that," but he insists Esper "was  completely informed as to this because his chief of staff was briefed on it." Alyssa Farah, Pentagon spokeswoman, disputed that in a statement, writing that "neither Secretary Esper nor anyone on his staff  was aware of Spencer's efforts behind the scenes."

When Trump was asked by reporters about the forced resignation, he said it had been planned for a while. "We'd been thinking about that for a long time. That didn't just happen. And I have to protect  my war fighters." 

He referred to Gallagher as "one of our ultimate fighters," adding, "Somebody has their back, and it's called the President of the US, okay?" He indicated that he thinks "what I'm doing is sticking up for our armed forces."

But for Esper, forcing Spencer's resignation wasn't about Gallagher's status but was the moves the Navy secretary made behind the scenes. "Contrary to the narrative that some want to put forward in the media, this dismissal is not about Eddie Gallagher — it's about Secretary Spencer and the chain of command," he said. 

Trump, though, suggested on Twitter that Spencer was let go because of cost overruns and the way the Navy had treated Gallagher.

Retired admiral John Kirby, who served as spokesman for both the Pentagon and State Department, says Trump's interference will raise questions about how many more cases he will try to influence. This has led to the Army conducting an administrative review to determine whether one of the pardoned service members should keep his Army Ranger tab, the Army's version of the SEALs Trident Pin. 

"Now what's going to happen? At what level does the president stop interfering with normal administrative process? Where does it end?" questioned Kirby. For him, it's not about whether the president can make demands such as these. "The question is should he."

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