Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters Monday that he was directly ordered by President Trump to allow a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes to retain his status in the elite unit. It was the first indication that Esper’s decision, announced Sunday, came from Trump himself.
Trump had only previously tweeted his support for Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted on charges of shooting civilians and murdering an ISIS fighter but convicted for posing with the corpse of a detainee. The Navy wanted to expel Gallagher from the SEALs, but last Thursday Trump tweeted, “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” The pin signifies membership in the SEALs.
Trump’s tweet wasn’t being treated as an order within the Navy though, and plans continued to oust Gallagher. Those plans came to an end Sunday when Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, and said Gallagher would be keeping his trident.
The Times reported that the decision was made because Esper had “concerns that the events of the past few days would make it impossible for [Gallagher] to get an impartial hearing.”
We now know that the real reason Gallagher will remain a SEAL is that Trump ordered it. In his comments Monday, Esper said he previously supported plans to go forward with a December review to determine if Gallagher should remain a SEAL. But when Trump told him Sunday to stop the process, he complied.
“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 told reporters. “Again, these are constitutional powers.”
He added: “I can control what I can control.”
Esper also said that he now believes Trump’s decision was the right one. No matter what the review board decided, he said, “They would be criticized from many sides, which would further drag this issue on, dividing the institution. I want the SEALs and the Navy to move beyond this now, fully focused on their warfighting mission.”
Esper commented further on the Spencer’s firing as well, saying he was “flabbergasted” to learn that the ousted Navy secretary had gone behind his back to communicate with the White House. “Contrary to the narrative that some have put forward in the media, this dismissal is not about Eddie Gallagher,” he said. “It’s about Secretary Spencer and the chain of the command.”