US Navy SEAL case leads to Navy secretary’s dismissal

By: Joseph Lyttleton
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On Sunday, November 24, U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was ousted for his handling of court-martialed U.S. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s case. In September this year, Gallagher was demoted for his involvement in criminal activities while serving in Iraq, but in November, President Donald Trump intervened to restore the SEAL’s rank.

Spencer’s handling of the case earned the ire of both President Trump and his direct superior, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. 

Who is Eddie Gallagher?

Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher was convicted of war crimes for posing with a dead 15-year-old Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighter in a photo that was sent by text. Gallagher was also accused of the premeditated murder of the ISIS combatant who was being held in captivity. However, he was acquitted of that charge as there was no physical evidence of the murder. Gallagher, who had served for 19 years in the Navy, was demoted to petty officer first class as a result of his conviction and was to be stripped of his SEAL Trident pin that designates him as a Navy SEAL.

On November 15, President Trump intervened to restore Gallagher’s rank and publicly stated Gallagher should retain his Trident pin. Along with Gallagher’s restored rank, the president simultaneously pardoned two U.S. Army officers accused of war crimes. One was First Lieutenant Clint Lorance who was convicted in 2013 of two counts of second-degree murder and obstruction of justice. The other pardoned officer, Major Mathew Golsteyn, was to face trial in 2020 for the murder of a suspected Afghan bomb maker.


Richard Spencer’s ousting

In the wake of President Trump’s controversial intervention, Spencer publicly resisted the push to restore Gallagher’s rank and Trident. After President Trump tweeted on November 21 that “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal [sic] Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin”, Spencer said he did not take the tweet “as a formal order.”

However, Defense Secretary Esper was angered to learn that Spencer had been secretly negotiating with the White House to restore Gallagher’s rank. It was an apparent attempt by Spencer to maintain his public position while avoiding conflict with President Trump. Spencer did not discuss this move with his superior, Esper, who reprimanded the Navy secretary for failing to follow the appropriate chain of command. Esper cited his loss of trust and confidence in Spencer in his decision to fire him.

The fallout after Spencer’s firing

The firing of the Navy secretary has only deepened the drama related to President Trump’s intervention in Gallagher’s court-martial. Jeremy Diamond, White House correspondent for CNN, tweeted on Monday that “there are now [three] versions of Spencer’s firing.” In addition to Esper’s complaints, President Trump tweeted that Spencer was fired for his mishandling of Gallagher’s case and “cost overruns” in the department.

Prior to his dismissal, Spencer denied reports that he intended to resign. After the dismissal, he emphatically stated that he did not retire: “I got fired.” In Spencer’s letter of resignation, he gave pointed reasons for accepting his ousting. He explained it had become apparent he and President Trump did not see eye to eye “in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline.” He went on to say that following the order to restore Spencer’s rank and Trident pin would violate the sacred oath he took as the Navy secretary.

Reactions to Gallagher’s case

While Esper has made his displeasure with Spencer clear in public statements, he appears to have supported the Navy secretary’s public stance on the Gallagher case. As reported by NPR, both Esper and U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy had voiced concerns that Trump’s intervention in the war crime cases sent the wrong message to active troops. Witnesses in Gallagher’s original trial included a number of men in his unit, Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7.

The three service members at the center of President Trump’s interventions have been lauded by conservative voices in the media. Gallagher appeared for an interview on Fox News just prior to the president’s direct intervention into his case. He has been portrayed by his lawyers and numerous conservative pundits as a dedicated officer who did the necessary but unpalatable work that is required in wartime.

The next step

President Trump tweeted on Sunday night that he would nominate ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite, “A man of great achievement and success”, to replace Spencer. Braithwaite has been the U.S. ambassador to Norway since February 2018 and was nominated for that position by President Trump in 2017.

The Navy secretary is appointed by the president and must be a civilian who has been out of military service for at least five years. Spencer was nominated to the position by President Trump in June 2017 and it was subsequently confirmed by the U.S. Senate in August of that year. Spencer is succeeded by Thomas Modly who will be acting secretary of the Navy until President Trump’s nominee is confirmed.