PENTAGON - U.S. President Donald Trump has defended his intervention in the case of a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes in Iraq.
"I have to protect our war fighters,'' Trump said in explaining why he asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper to allow a U.S. special warfare operator convicted of battlefield misconduct to retire as a member of the Navy SEALs and not face a review board.
Esper told reporters Monday the order regarding the fate of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher came directly from the president.
"I spoke to the president on Sunday. He gave me the order that Eddie Gallagher will retain his Trident pin," Esper said of the pin signaling membership in the elite unit, adding Gallagher would retire at the end of the month.
“The president is the commander-in-chief. He has every right, authority and privilege to do what he wants to do," he added.
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 dead body and was demoted.
Earlier this month, President Trump intervened in case the case, restoring Gallagher’s rank and pay, but had objected to plans for Gallagher to appear before a review board to decide whether he could continue to wear the Trident pin.
Esper's comments Monday came a day after he announced the firing of the Navy’s top civilian, Secretary Richard Spencer, citing Spencer’s handling of the case.
Esper accused Spencer of going behind his back on the Gallagher case to broker a deal directly with the White House, saying that he “lost trust and confidence as a result.”
Earlier this month, President Trump intervened and restored Gallagher’s rank and pay, but had objected to plans for Gallagher to appear before a review board to decide whether he could continue to wear the Trident pin.
In a letter acknowledging his termination Sunday, Spencer said he could not abide by the president’s desire to bypass the review board process.
“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 may faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
But contrary to the letter, Pentagon officials alleged the deal Spencer sought to arrange with the White House would have done exactly that by rigging the review board process to allow Gallagher to retain his Trident pin, giving the president his desired outcome.
“This is my issue with trust and confidence,” Esper said, admitting that the whole affair made little sense. “I cannot reconcile the personal statements with the public statements with the written word.”
But he said, regardless, the deal would have been damaging.
"If that deal had been consummated, if you will, somebody would have to compromise their integrity in the chain of command and I wasn't going to put that on anybody," Esper said.
In a series of Tweets late Sunday, Trump cited both the Gallagher case and ongoing financial issues in expressing support for Spencer’s firing.
“I was not pleased with the way that Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s trial was handled,” Trump said. “Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the … honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin.”
I was not pleased with the way that Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s trial was handled by the Navy. He was treated very badly but, despite this, was completely exonerated on all major charges. I then restored Eddie’s rank. Likewise, large cost overruns from past administration’s.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 24, 2019
At least one lawmaker, though, is calling for an investigation into the events the led to Spencer’s firing.
“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.
“We have many unanswered questions about Secretary Spencer’s departure,” Kaine said, calling Spencer one of several officials who “served our country well despite having to work under an unethical commander-in-chief.”
In a separate statement late Sunday, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he supported the firing.
The president and defense secretary “deserve to have a leadership team who has their trust and confidence,” said Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, 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.