PENTAGON - U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday offered another conflicting account of a leadership shakeup at the Pentagon, while defending his decision to intervene on behalf of a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct during the fight against the Islamic State terror group in Iraq.
Asked about Sunday’s firing of the U.S. Navy’s top civilian, Secretary Richard Spencer, Trump told White House reporters, “We’ve been thinking about that for a long time.”
“That didn’t just happen,” he added during an appearance in the Oval Office with the Bulgarian prime minister. "I have to protect my war fighters.”
Trump also defended ordering Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday to cancel a review board hearing for Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher.
Gallagher was acquitted by a military jury earlier this year of charges he murdered a wounded Islamic State terror group fighter during his deployment to Iraq in 2017. But he was found guilty of posing with the teenager's body and demoted.
Earlier this month, Trump intervened, restoring Gallagher’s rank and pay. But some Navy officials, including Spencer, had said Gallagher would still need to appear before a review board, which would decide whether he could still retire as a SEAL and keep the Trident pin awarded to members of the elite unit.
“They wanted to take his pin away, and I said, ‘No,’” the president told reporters Monday, calling Gallagher a “tough guy” and “one of the ultimate fighters.”
Hours earlier, Esper defended Trump’s order to abort the review board hearing for Gallagher.
“The president is the commander-in-chief. He has every right, authority and privilege to do what he wants to do," Esper told reporters at the Pentagon.
But Esper’s account of the events that led to Spencer’s dismissal as Navy secretary appears to differ from Trump’s characterization that the firing had been under consideration “for a long time."
Specifically, Esper alleged he learned after a White House meeting on Friday that Spencer had gone behind his back and tried to make a deal regarding the Gallagher case with White House officials.
“We learned that several days prior Secretary Spencer had proposed a deal whereby if president allowed the Navy to handle the case, he [Spencer] would guarantee that Eddie Gallagher would be restored a rank allowed to retain his trident and permitted to retire,” Esper told reporters.
“I spoke with the president late Saturday informed him that I lost trust and confidence in Secretary Spencer and I was going to ask for Spencer's resignation,” the defense secretary added. “The president supported this decision.”
The White House late Monday pushed back against the idea that the president’s version of events and the Pentagon’s version were not aligned.
"Both of those things are true,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told VOA, regarding Trump’s assertion that there had been plans to fire Spencer prior to his conduct in the Gallagher matter.
Yet other discrepancies remain.
Esper on Monday insisted Spencer had threatened to resign.
“Secretary Spencer had said to me that … he was likely, probably going to resign if he was forced to work to try to retain the Trident [pin for Gallagher],” Esper said. “I had every reason to believe that he was going to resign, that it was a threat to resign.”
“I cannot reconcile the personal statements with the public statements with the written word,” the defense secretary added, further defending his decision to part ways with (fire) Spencer.
In an interview late Monday with CBS News, his first since his firing, Spencer said he made no such threats.
"I never threatened to resign,” he said. "I got fired."
However, the former Navy secretary admitted he did approach the White House about a deal that would allow Gallagher to retire as a SEAL – the outcome the president desired – if the president agreed not to interfere.
"In order to preserve the resiliency of the naval institution, I had to step up and do something," Spencer told CBS, admitting he did not inform Esper at the time.
But Spencer said he was quickly told his proposal was a no go.
In a letter acknowledging his termination Sunday, Spencer said he could not abide by the president’s desire to bypass the review board process as required by the military justice system.
“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” he wrote. “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believes 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.”
“What message does that send to the troops?” Spencer told CBS of the president’s interference, answering, “That you can get away with things.”
Already, the president’s intervention in the Gallagher case and the firing of the Navy secretary have some Democratic lawmakers calling for an investigation.
“Throughout my work with Secretary Spencer, I’ve known him to be a good man, a patriotic American, and an effective leader,” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Monday.
“We have many unanswered questions,” Kaine said, calling Spencer one of several officials who “served our country well despite having to work under an unethical commander-in-chief.”
“We’re working to get the facts,” the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Jack Reed, added in a separate statement. “Clearly, Spencer’s forced resignation is another consequence of the disarray brought about by President Trump’s inappropriate involvement in the military justice system and the disorder and dysfunction that has been a constant presence in this Administration.”
But the committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, indicated late Sunday he was ready to move on.
The president and defense secretary “deserve to have a leadership team who has their trust and confidence,” Inhofe said, acknowledging, “It is no secret that I had my own disagreements with Secretary Spencer over the management of specific Navy programs.”
Trump has nominated Ken Braithwaite, a former admiral and the current U.S. ambassador to Norway, to become the next Navy secretary.
White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.