WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that President Trump gave him a direct order to allow a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes to retire without losing his old rank or SEAL status.
Esper also hinted — but would not directly say — that he considers a presidential tweet an order from the commander-in-chief, as long as there is a written record of it at some point.
“He (Trump) wanted Eddie Gallagher’s (Trident) pin restored and I said roger, I got it,” Esper told Pentagon reporters. Gallagher is the Navy SEAL who posed with the corpse of a captive ISIS member; the Trident pin is given to Navy SEALS and is considered their badge of honor.
Esper held a quickly arranged press briefing with Pentagon reporters in the aftermath of the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer a part of the imbroglio surrounding the case of Gallagher, one of three service members facing war crimes allegations whose cases have caused new tension between the Pentagon and Trump.
“The commander in chief has certain constitutional rights and powers which he is free to exercise, as many presidents have done in the past,” Esper said. “Again, these are constitutional powers.
“I can control what I can control,” Esper said. The president “has every right” to issue such an order.
Gallagher had been convicted of bringing discredit to the armed services after posing next to the dead ISIS fighter’s body in 2017 in Iraq, which is against regulations. He was demoted for that offense and acquitted of a separate murder charge in the stabbing death of the captive.
After Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion a week ago, military officials launched a formal review to determine if Gallagher was fit to serve, which is protocol after a conviction. That review was to be next week and expected to lead to his expulsion.
Esper said that review will not occur.
Spencer had publicly opposed Trump’s interference in the military justice process and, Esper confirmed, privately told him he would resign if the Gallagher verdict were reversed by Trump. In public, Spencer had been denying the resignation threat.
However, at the same time, Spencer has reached out to Trump and White House officials with a proposed deal that would restore Gallagher’s rank and Trident pin and he would resign from the service, in exchange for Trump promising not to intervene.
Esper said he learned of this offer during a White House meeting Thursday night and was “flabbergasted.” He told reporters he could not reconcile Spencer’s proposal with his public statements and that caused him to lose “trust and confidence in him (Spencer) regarding his lack of candor” as well as raise his ire for going outside the system and not following the rules.
He also said he did not know how Spencer planned to rig the system.
“Contrary to the narrative that some want to put forward in the media, this dismissal is not about Eddie Gallagher, it’s about Secretary Spencer and the chain of command,” Esper said Monday. “The case of Eddie Gallagher has dragged on for months and has distracted too many. It must end.”
In his resignation letter Sunday to Trump acknowledging his firing, Spencer said he could not in good conscience follow an order that he believed would undermine the principle of good order and discipline in the military. He did not mention the proposed deal.
Esper said he remains concerned, based on the Gallagher case and other incidents, that military personnel are not properly and fully trained in ethical standards. He said he has ordered the Pentagon’s legal office to review how the military educates and trains personnel on wartime ethics and the laws of armed conflict as well as revisit how the branches monitor, investigate and administer the standards.
“If folks want to criticize anyone about reaching down into the administrative processes, then simply blame me,” Esper said. “I’m responsible at this point. It’s not where I prefer to be, but I’ll own it.”