A frenzied few days of public statements and private jockeying ended Sunday as Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer was forced out over his role in the drama surrounding Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL.
In his letter, which was requested by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Spencer takes aim at President Donald Trump for interfering on Gallagher’s behalf.
“…I no longer share the same understanding as the Commander in Chief who appointed me, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline,” he wrote. “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.”
Spencer never said in the letter that he was resigning, but instead “acknowledged” his termination.
According to the Washington Post, Gallagher was convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State prisoner during a 2017 deployment to Iraq, though he was acquitted of the man’s murder.
Against guidance from the Pentagon, Trump reinstated Gallagher’s rank after he was demoted as punishment for the photo. Trump pardoned two other soldiers, one who was in jail on war crimes charges and one who was scheduled for a murder trial next year.
After Trump intervened, Rear Adm. Collin Green, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, moved to set up review boards for Gallagher and a few fellow SEALS to see if they should be removed from the force.
According to Esper, Spencer took it upon himself to privately try to strike a bargain with the White House: he’d ensure that Gallagher retired as a SEAL if Trump did not interfere in the review board process.
Esper said that he lost “confidence” in Spencer after learning of the proposed deal, which Spencer never shared with him.
Trump tweeted soon after Spencer allegedly made the pitch in full-throated defense of Gallagher. In a narrative differing from Esper’s account of the situation, news started to swirl that Spencer had threatened to resign over the President’s intervention in the case. However, Spencer publicly dismissed that reporting, muddying the waters.
Trump nominated the Ambassador to Norway, Kenneth Braithwaite, to replace Spencer on Esper’s recommendation.
Gallagher has become a hero in the Trump echo chamber of Fox News commentary, where he’s seen as a victim of vengeful SEAL commanders. His case may have caught White House attention because his legal team included two Trump friends who are former partners of Giuliani: investigator Bernard Kerik, a former New York police commissioner, and Marc Mukasey, who represents Trump.
While Gallagher is celebrated on Fox, current and former senior officers of the SEALs and other elite units told me this weekend that his case has little support within the community of Special Operations forces. One former SEAL commander noted that maintaining discipline among these elite units is so important that the SEAL peer-review panels have removed more than 150 Trident pins since 2011, or more than one a month.
Trump has taken his cues, as The Post’s Dan Lamothe and Josh Dawsey detailed, not from information provided by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper or other senior officials, but rather from Fox News and other right-wing media. The legal team for Chief Gallagher, according to The Post’s David Ignatius, included two friends of the president who are also former partners of his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. The message: Why worry about chain of command, discipline and obedience when what matters is having the right connections?
Most offensive is what Mr. Trump’s actions say about his view of the military. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!,” he tweeted in October when he announced he would review these cases. Perhaps Mr. Trump has watched too many bad war movies, but if he were to consult with his military leaders or talk to the many fine men and women in uniform, they would tell him they are trained to engage in combat while following the laws of war and upholding the country’s ideals.