The fallout over the president’s decision to meddle in the demotion of accused war criminal Edward Gallagher spilled into the new week, when former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer — who was fired by Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday for an alleged violation of the chain of command — claimed that President Trump’s direct order to uphold Gallagher’s status as a Navy SEAL gave the impression that, under the current administration, war crimes would not be prosecuted to their fullest extent. In an interview with CBS Evening News’ David Martin, Gallagher, unpoetically, claimed that Trump’s action sends a message to members of the Armed Forces “that you can get away with things.”
Martin: What were the ramifications of intervening in that review process?
Spencer: Right now, we’re not going to [demote Gallagher] is what Secretary Esper says. What message does that send to the troops?
Martin: Well, what message does it send?
Spencer: That you can get away with things. We have to have good order and discipline. It’s the backbone of what we do.
Though the source of the condemnation is significant — and suggests that Spencer is doubling down on his claim that he was ousted because of his ethical stance, not for running around the chain of command — the claim is not exactly breaking news. Whether or not military brass is fond of the chaos of the Trump administration, the commander-in-chief has repeatedly broadcast to enlisted members that Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric does not apply to war crimes. In addition to his direct order to uphold the rank of Gallagher — who was convicted for posing with the severed head of a teenage combatant he killed — Trump has pardoned an Army major who admitted to murdering an Afghan civilian and then burning his corpse; an Army ranger convicted of murdering an Iraqi detainee during an unauthorized interrogation; and an Army first lieutenant convicted of two counts of second-degree murder.
On November 15, the company commander of that last war criminal, Clint Lorrance, told the New York Times that he lamented the pardon because “people will hail [Lorrance] as a hero, and he is not a hero. He ordered those murders. He lied about them.” On Monday, Trump took a different perspective on his selective leniency: “There’s never been a president that’s going to stick up for them, and has, like I have.”
Like most favors Trump doles out, there’s an expectation of one in return. Late on Monday, the Daily Beast reported that President Trump wants to invite the accused and convicted war criminals he has pardoned onto the 2020 campaign trail — though it’s likely that the favor expected will be more of an honor bestowed. “I want to say thank you to President Trump,” Clint Lorrance said after he was released in November, after serving six years of a 20-year sentence. “And I want the rest of the country to do that, too.”