Pentagon Chief Fires Navy Secretary Over SEAL Controversy

November 24, 2019 Updated: November 24, 2019

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Nov. 24 fired the U.S. Navy’s top official over his handling of a disciplinary case involving a Navy SEAL.

Esper asked for the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Spencer submitted it Nov. 24, said Jonathan Hoffman, the chief spokesman for the Pentagon.

The firing was a dramatic turn in a long-running controversy involving Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, whose case has been championed by President Donald Trump.

Esper also directed that Gallagher be allowed to retire at the end of this month, and that a Navy disciplinary board that was scheduled to hear his case starting Dec. 2 be canceled, Hoffman said. At Esper’s direction, Gallagher will be allowed to retire as a SEAL at his current rank, Hoffman said.

Hoffman said Esper lost trust and confidence in Spencer “regarding his lack of candor” about conversations with the White House involving the handling of the SEAL case.

“I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official,” Esper said in a written statement issued by Hoffman. “Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well.”

Although Trump had written on Twitter on Nov. 21 that he wouldn’t let the Navy remove Gallagher from the special operations force, the Navy was given White House guidance on Nov. 22 that it could proceed as planned, according to a Navy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher
Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher. (Andrea and Edward Gallagher/File Photo via AP)

This would seem to have defused a conflict between the president and Navy leaders. Spencer said Nov. 23 at an international security forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that he didn’t consider a tweet by the president an order. He said he would need a formal order to stop the Navy review board, scheduled to begin Dec. 2, that would determine whether Gallagher is allowed to remain in the SEALs.

“I need a formal order to act,” Spencer said. “I don’t interpret [Trump’s tweets] as a formal order.”

Trump wrote on Twitter on Nov. 21 that the Navy “will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin,” inserting himself into the ongoing legal review of the sailor’s ability to keep the pin that designates him a SEAL.

The Navy on Nov. 2o had notified Gallagher that he would face the review board to determine if he should remain on the elite force.

While Gallagher was acquitted of a murder charge of a captive member of the ISIS terrorist group, a military jury convicted him of posing for a photo with the corpse while in Iraq in 2017. He was demoted from chief petty officer to a petty officer first class. Trump this month restored Gallagher’s rank.

Spencer, speaking on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum, said if the president requests the process to stop, the process stops.

“Good order and discipline is also obeying the orders of the president of the United States,” he said.

“The president of the United States is the commander in chief. He’s involved in every aspect of government and he can make decisions and give orders as appropriate,” he said.

Gallagher’s lawyers have accused the Navy of trying to remove the SEAL designation in retaliation for Trump’s decision to restore his rank.

Gallagher filed a complaint with the inspector general accusing Rear Adm. Collin Green, the Naval Special Warfare commander, of insubordination for defying Trump’s actions.

Speaking Nov. 24 on “Fox & Friends,” Gallagher repeated his argument that the Navy was acting in retaliation.

“They could have taken my Trident at any time they wanted,” he said. “Now, they’re trying to take it after the president restored my rank.” Gallagher said he wanted to be allowed to retire on Nov. 30 “with all the honors that I’ve earned, get back to my family.”

By Robert Burns and Rob Gillies

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