He was limp and dusty from an explosion, conscious but barely. A far cry from the fierce, masked Islamic State fighters who once seized vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, the captive was a scraggly teenager in a tank top with limbs so thin that his watch slid easily off his wrist.
Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher and other Navy SEALs gave the young captive medical aid that day in Iraq in 2017, sedating him and cutting an airway in his throat to help him breathe. Then, without warning, according to colleagues, Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck.
The same Gallagher who later posed for a photograph holding the dead captive up by the hair has now been celebrated on the campaign trail by President Donald Trump, who upended the military code of justice to protect him from the punishment resulting from the episode. Prodded by Fox News, Trump has been trumpeting him as an argument for his reelection.
The violent encounter in a faraway land opened a two-year affair that would pit a Pentagon hierarchy wedded to longstanding rules of combat and discipline against a commander in chief with no experience in uniform but a finely honed sense of grievance against authority. The highest ranks in the Navy insisted Gallagher be held accountable. Trump overruled the chain of command and the secretary of the Navy was fired.
The case of the president and a commando accused of war crimes offers a lesson in how Trump presides over the armed forces three years after taking office. While he boasts of supporting the military, he has come to distrust the generals and admirals who run it. Rather than accept information from his own government, he responds to television reports that grab his interest. Warned against crossing lines, he bulldozes past precedent and norms.
As a result, the president finds himself more removed than ever from a disenchanted military command, adding the armed forces to the institutions under his authority that he has feuded with, along with the intelligence community, law enforcement agencies and diplomatic corps.
“We’re going to take care of our warriors and I will always stick up for our great fighters,” Trump told a rally in Florida as he depicted the military hierarchy as part of “the deep state” he vowed to dismantle.
The president’s handling of the case has distressed active-duty and retired officers and the civilians who work closely with them. His intervention, they said, emboldens war criminals and erodes the order of a professional military.
Chris Shumake, a former sniper who served in Gallagher’s platoon, said in an interview that he was troubled by the impact the president’s intervention could have on the SEALs.
“It’s blown up bigger than any of us could have ever expected, and turned into a national clown show that put a bad light on the teams,” said Shumake, speaking publicly for the first time. “He’s trying to show he has the troops’ backs, but he’s saying he doesn’t trust any of the troops or their leaders to make the right decisions.”
Gallagher, who has denied wrongdoing, declined to be interviewed. Trump’s allies said the president was standing up to political correctness that hamstrings warriors defending the nation, as if war should be fought according to lawyerly rules.
“From the beginning, this was overzealous prosecutors who were not giving the benefit of the doubt to the trigger-pullers,” Pete Hegseth, the “Fox & Friends” host who has promoted Gallagher to the president both on the telephone and on air, said this past week. “That’s what the president saw.”
Gallagher was reported by six fellow SEALs and arrested in September 2017, charged with nearly a dozen counts including murder and locked in the brig in San Diego to await his trial. He denied the charges and called those reporting him liars who could not meet his high standards, referring to them repeatedly in public as “the mean girls” and saying they sought to get rid of him.
David Shaw, a former SEAL who deployed with the platoon, said he saw no evidence of that. “All six were some of the best performers in the platoon,” he said, speaking publicly for the first time. “These were guys were hand-selected by the chief based on their skills and abilities, and they are guys of the highest character.”
Gallagher’s case was already simmering on the conservative talk show circuit when another service member, Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, an Army Green Beret, was charged last winter with killing an unarmed man linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan. On Dec. 16, barely minutes after a segment on “Fox & Friends,” Trump took to Twitter to say he would review the case, repeating language from the segment.
Upset at what he sees as “Monday morning quarterbacking” of soldiers fighting a shadowy enemy where “second-guessing was deadly,” Hegseth has for years defended troops charged with war crimes, including Gallagher, Golsteyn and Lt. Clint Lorance, often appealing directly to the president on Fox News.
Hegseth found a ready ally in Trump. In March, the president twice called Richard Spencer, the Navy secretary, asking him to release Gallagher from pretrial confinement in a Navy brig, Spencer later wrote in The Washington Post. After Spencer pushed back, Trump made it an order.
By May, Trump prepared to pardon both Gallagher and Golsteyn for Memorial Day, even though neither had yet faced trial. At the Pentagon, a conservative bastion where Fox News is the network of choice on office televisions, senior officials were aghast. They persuaded Trump to hold off. But that was not the end of the matter.
In June, Gallagher appeared before a military jury of five Marines and two sailors in a two-week trial marred by accusations of prosecutorial misconduct. The medic who had been inches away from Gallagher changed his story on the stand, claiming that he was the one who killed the captive.
In early July, the jury acquitted Gallagher on all charges but one: posing for a trophy photo with a corpse. He was sentenced to the maximum four months in prison and demoted. Having already been confined awaiting trial, he walked out of the courtroom a free man.
“Congratulations to Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, his wonderful wife Andrea, and his entire family,” Trump tweeted. “You have been through much together. Glad I could help!”
Spencer tried to head off further intervention. On Nov. 14, the Navy secretary sent a note to the president asking him not to get involved again. But Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, called to say Trump would order Gallagher’s punishment reversed and his rank restored. In addition, he pardoned Golsteyn and Lorance.
“This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review,” Spencer wrote. “It was also a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
Spencer threatened to resign. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy also weighed in, arguing that the country’s standards of military justice protected American troops by setting those troops up as a standard around the world.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper took the complaints to the president. The Pentagon also sent an information packet to the White House describing the cases, including a primer on why there is a Uniform Code of Military Justice. Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the president it was important to allow the process to go forward.
Caught in the middle was Rear Adm. Collin Green, who took command of the SEALs four days before Gallagher was arrested.
The admiral wanted to take Gallagher’s Trident pin, casting him out of the force. He called both Spencer and the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, and said he understood the potential backlash from the White House, but in nearly all cases SEALs with criminal convictions had their Tridents taken.
Both Spencer and Gilday agreed the decision was his to make and said they would defend his call. Esper briefed Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on Nov. 19 and the next day the Navy established a review board of fellow enlisted SEALs to decide the question.
But a day later, an hour after the chief’s lawyer blasted the decision on Fox News, the president stepped in again. “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”
Three days later, Spencer was fired, faulted by Esper for not telling him about an effort to work out a deal with the White House to allow the Navy process to go forward.
In an interview with Hegseth this past week, Gallagher thanked Trump for having his back. “He keeps stepping in and doing the right thing,” the chief said. “I want to let him know the rest of the SEAL community is not about this right now. They all respect the president.”