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U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, the military branch’s top official, resigned on Sunday amid a high-profile disagreement with the president over the fate of a decorated Navy SEAL.
At issue was the Navy’s desire to open disciplinary hearings into the actions of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher that could have resulted in him being expelled from the elite SEAL commando unit. President Trump, who has been a vocal advocate for Gallagher, tweeted that he would not allow the hearings to go forward. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he asked for Spencer’s resignation, accusing him of trying to make a backroom deal with the White House to resolve the situation.
In his resignation letter, Spencer said he was terminated for refusing to follow an order he believes “violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution."
Gallagher was accused of murdering an unarmed prisoner and shooting civilians, including a young girl and an elderly man, while serving in Iraq. He was found not guilty on those charges this summer, but was convicted on a single count for posing for a “trophy” photo with the prisoner’s dead body, which led the Navy to lower his military rank.
Trump reversed that decision and restored Gallagher’s full rank earlier this month. He also ordered that Gallagher be allowed to remain in the SEALs. The president has also intervened in other war crimes cases, including issuing a pardon to an Army lieutenant who was serving a 19-year sentence for the murders of two civilians.
Why there’s debate
There is no question as to whether Trump has the authority to block the Navy from disciplining Gallagher or push out a secretary who is defying his wishes. As commander in chief, he can “micromanage in nearly anything in the military, no matter how trivial,” one expert said.
The ramifications of pitting himself against military commanders are less clear. Trump has echoed sentiments from conservative media in arguing that warfighters like Gallagher have been unfairly punished for decisions made in the heat of battle. Spencer was accused of circumventing the chain of command by defying the president’s wishes and going behind the defense secretary’s back. Even if he disagreed with the president’s guidance, Spencer was obligated to follow it, some argue.
Others have commended Spencer for standing up for what he believes is the best course of action for the Navy, despite Trump’s protests. A series of scandals across military special forces units in recent years have pushed commanders to take a hard line on cases like Gallagher’s in an effort to rein in abuses by fighters in combat zones. The president has undermined the ability of military commanding officers to maintain “good order” based on his misunderstanding of the rules of engagement, some argue.
Gallagher has said he intends to retire from the Navy at the end of November and now appears likely to do so with his SEAL status intact. Trump has nominated retired Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite, who’s currently U.S. ambassador to Norway, to replace Spencer as Navy secretary.
Military interference is latest example of Trump crossing traditional line
“With Spencer’s firing, Trump has recklessly crossed a line he had generally observed before, which had exempted the military from his belligerent, government-by-tweet interference.” — David Ignatius, Washington Post
Spencer ignored the president’s command and deserved to be fired
“The big problem here is clear, forget the details of the last 24 hours. They ignored the president’s clear guidance … and the Navy ignored the commander in chief’s approach and Spencer paid the price.” — Pete Hegseth, Fox News
The president has the power to do almost whatever he wants with military matters
“The president’s power over the military is no mistake. Founding Fathers knew the executive would need broad authority in war. But the real boundaries of what a president can do as a commander in chief in the day-to-day operations of the armed forces have never been tested, experts say, because since the beginning of the republic the presidency has given the military broad deference in how it runs its affairs.” — Dave Philipps and John Ismay, New York Times
War crimes should not be treated as an inevitable result of combat
“While it’s true that soldiers on the frontline must deal with stress and ambiguous life-or-death situations that most of us cannot fathom, we dishonor soldiers when we imply they can’t distinguish right from wrong, and when we dismiss the courage of those who defied institutional resistance to speak out and report war crimes.” — Sébastien Roblin, NBC News
Navy leadership created a situation they knew would rile the president
“Had the offense not appeared at a general court-martial trial, it likely would’ve been handled administratively, perhaps with little more than a verbal reprimand before Gallagher retired after two decades of service. Instead, it was the legal flotsam left after the military jury washed away what was left of the Navy’s failed case against him.” — Carl Prine, Navy Times
Trump has undermined efforts to clean up abuses in special forces
“Military brass does not want war criminals and other bad actors to be pardoned. It betrays chain of command, it makes unit and force cohesion harder. It is not what the best of them, and most of them, signed up for.” — Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones
Gallagher made his case to Trump directly with repeated appearances on Fox News
“You may think this Edward Gallagher story is just a military story. But it's not. It's also a story about how people work the system under this president.” — Blake Hounshell,
Trump’s actions make it harder for military leaders to lead their troops
“The Navy needs to be ready to fight. That means Navy commanding officers and senior noncommissioned officers must be vested with the clear authority to lead, including on matters of discipline.” — Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images