defense department

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer Fired Over War-Criminal Controversy

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Like in many other corners of the Cabinet, the Department of Defense has a real mess on its hands thanks to President Trump’s misbehavior.

Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer has been fired following a standoff with the president over the Trump-reversed demotion of Navy SEAL and accused war criminal Edward Gallagher. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Spencer and the admiral who leads the SEALs had threatened to resign if Gallagher wasn’t disciplined and kicked out of the elite unit. Spencer later denied the report and insisted that the disciplinary review against Chief Petty Officer Gallagher would proceed, since he did not consider Trump’s tweet against the demotion to be an official order.

Then on Sunday, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had decided to let Gallagher keep his rank, and that he had asked for Spencer’s resignation as a result of the Navy secretary trying to make a secret deal with the White House over the matter while ignoring the chain of command. Per the Washington Post:

Esper asked for Spencer’s resignation after learning that he had privately proposed to White House officials that if they did not interfere with proceedings against Gallagher [his removal from the SEALs], then Spencer would ensure that Gallagher was able to retire as a Navy SEAL, with his Trident insignia.


Spencer’s private proposal to the White House — which he did not share with Esper over the course of several conversations about the matter — contradicted his public position on the Gallagher case, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement … 


Esper said in the statement that he was “deeply troubled by this conduct.”

In more direct language, Esper is accusing Spencer of privately offering the White House concessions to defuse the controversy while taking a public stance against the president’s interference — all while hiding the communication from his direct superior. Regarding Gallagher’s rank, the Post reports that according to the Pentagon, “as a result of the actions over the last few days[,] Esper has decided to let Gallagher keep it.”

Spencer, however, then appeared to deny Esper’s justification in a letter acknowledging his termination. In an apparent reference to the Gallagher case, he claimed he “cannot in good conscience” obey an order which “violates the sacred oath” he took upon his nomination, adding that he and the president disagree on the “key principle of good order and discipline.”

Defense Secretary Esper, meanwhile, claims he fired the Navy Secretary for a two-faced breach of protocol, arguing that his run around the chain of command is an unacceptable violation of order. Earlier this week, though, Esper was reportedly saying that the president’s decision to intercede on Gallagher’s behalf would undermine military order and that it would give the message that war crimes were a-go under the Trump administration.

President Trump, weighing in via Twitter early Sunday evening, suggested Spencer was also terminated because of “large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures [that] were not addressed to my satisfaction.” He additionally announced that he was nominating retired rear admiral and current U.S. ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite to replace Spencer.

As the story continues to develop, it’s unclear which of the parties is in the right — though it’s clearly not President Trump, who first instigated the conflict after negating the Navy’s decision to reverse Gallagher’s demotion. Throughout his war criminal-friendly November, Trump has stayed clear of the moral/ethical high ground: In the past few weeks, he has pardoned one convicted and one accused war criminal; made a rare civilian intrusion into military discipline; and has gone to bat for Gallagher, who was convicted of posing with the corpse of a teenage ISIS detainee. (He was acquitted on counts of murdering that young captive; shooting civilians whose bodies were never recovered; opening fire on civilians from a sniper’s nest in Mosul; and threatening to kill any SEALs who reported his actions. Navy prosecutors reportedly bungled the case, and a key witness changed his testimony in Gallagher’s favor shortly before the trial.) On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the alleged war criminal would be allowed to “retire peacefully with all of the honors he has earned.”

At a security conference in Nova Scotia on Saturday — after the Times report about Spencer’s resignation threat — the Navy secretary said that “contrary to popular belief, I am still here.” As is often the case in this administration, such statements are often ill-advised.

This is a developing news story and this post has been updated throughout to reflect new information.

Navy Secretary Fired Over War-Criminal Controversy