The growing controversy between President Trump and top Navy brass over the fate of a SEAL accused of war crimes in Iraq ended when Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday fired Navy Secretary Richard Spence.
Esper said he had lost confidence in Spencer, and alleged that Spencer proposed a deal with the White House behind his back to resolve the SEAL’s case. Trump has championed the matter of Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted of murder in the stabbing death of an Islamic State militant captive but convicted of posing with the corpse while in Iraq in 2017.
“Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper has asked for the resignation of Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer after losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House involving the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement Sunday.
Spencer’s firing was a dramatic turn in the fast-changing and politically charged controversy. At the core was whether or not the Navy would strip Gallagher of his Trident pin, ousting him from the prestigious SEALs after he was demoted from chief petty officer to a 1st class petty officer following his conviction in July.
President Trump this month restored Gallagher’s rank and ordered that the Navy halt its internal review of Gallagher’s actions from 2017 that resulted in a high-profile war crimes case, for which he was found not guilty of the murder of an Islamic State fighter in Iraq.
Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley spoke to Trump on Friday with the intention of persuading the president to allow the Trident review board to go forward with its inquiry. Instead, Esper learned that Spencer previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and let him retire with his Trident pin, the Pentagon said. When Esper recently asked, Spencer confirmed that he’d never informed the defense secretary about his private proposal.
Apparently, Spencer asked Trump to let the Navy review board go forward, promising that the board would, in the end, “allow Gallagher to keep his Trident and rank,” effectively alluding to his willingness to fix the results of the board usually comprised of the defendant’s peers, a senior U.S. official told Fox News.
Trump rejected the offer and said, “no, we’re done,” prompting the president to write a series of tweets doubling down on his efforts to halt the review, the official added.
Spencer’s ousting was not a consequence of standing up for military justice – but rather was for dishonesty and undermining the military justice system, the senior U.S. official told Fox News. He was fired for “lack of candor,” the official added.
In announcing Secretary Spence’s firing, by Esper, a Pentagon spokesperson said that Gallagher would keep his Trident. Esper ordered that Gallagher be allowed to keep his Trident pin, noting that it would be nearly impossible for him to get a fair hearing from the military in light of recent events, a senior Pentagon official said.