WASHINGTON — As Defense Secretary Mark Esper sought to draw a line under the Eddie Gallagher affair Monday, the Navy SEAL at the center of the controversy went to work unsure of what lay ahead.
“When Eddie Gallagher left work on Friday afternoon, what the Navy was telling him at that time is entirely different from what they’re probably going to tell him when he shows up this morning,” said Timothy Parlatore, an attorney for the chief petty officer.
That is because over the weekend, the ramifications from Gallagher’s case had cost Navy Secretary Richard Spencer his job and forced Defense Secretary Mark Esper to order the Navy to allow Gallagher to retire with his Trident pin — in other words, to permit him to leave the service as a SEAL in good standing.
Gallagher went to court-martial in June charged with murder after several of his teammates said they’d seen him stab a young Iraqi prisoner to death in 2017. But the case against him collapsed after a series of prosecutorial missteps that culminated with the star witness, a SEAL medic named Corey Scott, stunning the court by saying that although Gallagher had stabbed the prisoner below the collarbone, it was he, Scott, not Gallagher, who had killed the militant by asphyxiating him.
The prosecution accused Scott of changing his story after being promised immunity, but Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious charges against him and found guilty only of posing beside the militant’s corpse. As punishment, the Navy tried to demote him by one rank. But this decision was reversed by President Trump, who has supported Gallagher throughout his case.
Indeed, it was Trump who, after the Navy planned to convene a review board to decide whether Gallagher should be stripped of his Trident, directed Esper over the weekend to order the Navy to let the SEAL keep his pin, Esper told reporters in the Pentagon on Monday.
Trump’s order essentially undermined the Navy’s final attempt to punish a sailor who, according to his own teammates, stabbed an unarmed, wounded detainee and then posed for a photograph beside his corpse.
Esper said he fired Spencer on Sunday after discovering that Spencer had gone around him to negotiate a deal with Trump in which the Navy process would go forward, but regardless of its outcome Gallagher would keep his Trident. “This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to, and contrary to Secretary Spencer’s public position,” Esper told reporters Monday.
But Spencer told a different story in his resignation letter, saying he was resigning over a difference with Trump over “the key principle of good order and discipline.”
“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath that I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Spencer wrote.
In his remarks Monday, Esper made it clear that he was keen to move past the Gallagher case, which became a cause célèbre among right-wing media outlets and the president himself, who portrayed the SEAL as a war hero, rather than a war criminal. “It’s distracting to many,” Esper said. “It must end.”
That end was spelled out by Trump in a series of tweets yesterday: “Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the …… honors that he has earned, including his Trident pin.”
Esper told reporters Monday that Gallagher will retire “at the end of this month.” Like other active-duty service members, Gallagher became eligible for retirement after 20 years of service, a milestone he passed “a few days” ago, according to Parlatore.
A spokesperson for Naval Special Warfare Command did not respond to multiple phone calls.
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