Defense Secretary Mark Esper has fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer over his handling of a high-profile war crimes case that involved a Navy SEAL and had attracted the attention of President Donald Trump.
The ouster of the Navy’s top civilian leader followed a tumultuous back-and-forth between the White House and the Defense Department regarding the status of Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL found guilty of committing war crimes in 2017.
Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion on Nov. 15, allowing him to keep his Trident pin, a symbol of his membership in the elite SEAL group. Top Navy officials, including Spencer, reportedly feared that Trump’s interference in the disciplinary proceedings against Gallagher threatened the integrity of the military justice system.
Spencer reportedly threatened to resign if Trump officially ordered the disciplinary proceedings against Gallagher to end, angering the president.
The Defense Department and White House said Spencer was forced out because he privately tried to strike a side deal with the White House about Gallagher’s case, according to The Washington Post and The New York Times.
In a private meeting, unbeknownst to Esper, Spencer reportedly said he would make sure Gallagher could retire as a Navy SEAL and keep his Trident insignia if Trump allowed the disciplinary process to play out.
A statement from the Pentagon said Spencer had lost Esper’s trust.
“Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper has asked for the resignation of Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer after losing trust & confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House involving the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher,” the statement said.
In his resignation letter, Secretary Spencer said he and Trump “no longer share the same understanding” and that he “cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag, and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Gallagher was demoted after being convicted for posing in a photograph with the corpse of a teenage ISIS fighter while serving in Iraq. His misconduct was reported by members of his own platoon.
He was also accused of killing that ISIS fighter, as well as shooting at civilians and threatening to kill SEALs who reported him, but he was acquitted of those charges.
The naval officer has since become a darling of the conservative movement, making appearances across right-wing media leading up to and since Trump’s decision to reverse his demotion.
In a series of tweets on Sunday, Trump announced U.S. Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite as his nominee to replace Spencer and echoed previous defenses he has made on Gallagher’s behalf.
“I was not pleased with the way that Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s trial was handled by the Navy,” Trump wrote. “Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin.”
This story has been updated to include additional information about Gallagher’s case and comments from Trump.
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