Pentagon chief fires Navy secretary over SEAL controversy
WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday fired the Navy’s top official for allegedly proposing a deal with the White House behind Esper’s back to resolve the matter of a Navy SEAL whose case has been championed by President Donald Trump.
At Esper’s request, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer submitted his resignation Sunday, said the chief spokesman for the Pentagon, Jonathan Hoffman.
In a series of tweets Sunday evening, Trump said he had been unhappy with the Navy’s handling of the Gallagher case. “Likewise, large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures were not addressed to my satisfaction,” Trump added without specifics.
“Therefore, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer’s services have been terminated by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper,” Trump tweeted.
Esper said he had recommended to the White House that Trump nominate as Spencer’s successor the U.S. ambassador to Norway, Kenneth Braithwaite, a retired Navy rear admiral.
In a subsequent tweet, Trump said he would nominate Braithwaite, whom he called “a man of great achievement and success.”
The firing was a dramatic turn in a fast-changing and politically charged controversy involving Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher. On Wednesday the Navy had notified Gallagher that he would face a Navy SEAL review board to determine if he should be allowed to remain in the elite force.
Gallagher was acquitted of a murder charge in the stabbing death of an Islamic State militant captive, but a military jury convicted him of posing with the corpse while in Iraq in 2017. He was demoted from chief petty officer to a 1st class petty officer. Trump this month restored Gallagher’s rank.
In a statement issued by Hoffman, Esper said he had lost “trust and confidence” in Spencer after learning that the Navy secretary had “privately” proposed to the White House that Gallagher be allowed to retire in his current rank and without losing his status as a SEAL. Esper said that in previous conversations with Spencer about the Gallagher matter, Spencer had not told Esper of his proposal to the White House.
Esper faulted Spencer for a “lack of candor” on the matter.
A spokesperson for Spencer, Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, said Spencer had no immediate comment.
In yet another twist, Esper also directed on Sunday that Gallagher be allowed to retire at the end of this month, and that the Navy review board that was scheduled to hear his case starting Dec. 2 be cancelled, Hoffman said. At Esper’s direction, Gallagher will be allowed to retire as a SEAL at his current rank, Hoffman said.
Hoffman said Esper’s position had been that the Navy’s disciplinary process should be allowed to “play itself out objectively and deliberately.”
“However, at this point, given the events of the last few days,” Esper decided that Gallagher should be allowed to retain his SEAL status, Hoffman said. He said Esper had concluded that Gallagher could not, under the circumstances, receive a fair shake from the Navy.
In the written statement, Esper said of Spencer: “I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official. Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well.”
Spencer, 65, had served as Navy secretary since August 2017. He was a Wall Street investment banker and is a veteran of the Marine Corps. He and Esper were Pentagon peers during the period that Esper served as Army secretary, prior to being sworn in as defense secretary last July.
Trump’s involvement in the Gallagher case has raised questions among some current and former military officials about the appropriate role of a commander in chief in matters of military justice.
Just last Thursday, Trump wrote in a tweet that he would not let the Navy remove Gallagher from the SEALs by taking away his Trident Pin, which designates a SEAL member.
Two days later, Spencer said he did not consider a presidential tweet to constitute a direct order, and that unless Trump issued a formal order stopping the Navy’s peer-review board from convening to consider Gallagher’s status, the board would meet as scheduled a week from Monday.
Trump issued no such order, but he appears to have gained the outcome he sought, with Esper directing a halt to the review process and directing that Gallagher be allowed to retire in his current rank and with his SEAL status.