The secretary of the Navy and the admiral who leads the SEALs have threatened to resign or be fired if plans to expel a commando from the elite unit in a war crimes case are halted by President Donald Trump, administration officials said Saturday.
The Navy is proceeding with the disciplinary plans against the commando, Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who counts Trump as one of his most vocal supporters. The threats by the Navy secretary, Richard Spencer, and Rear Adm. Collin Green are a rare instance of pushback against Trump from members of the Defense Department.
Gallagher was accused of shooting civilians, murdering a captive Islamic State fighter with a hunting knife in Iraq, and threatening to kill SEALs who reported him, among other misconduct. His court-martial ended in acquittal on those charges.
But the Navy ultimately demoted the chief, who was convicted of one charge: bringing discredit to the armed forces by posing for photos with the teenage captive’s dead body. Last Friday, Trump reversed that demotion, angering Navy officials, who had little choice but to accept the reversal. Nonetheless, they continued with their plans to expel Gallagher from the unit.
On Thursday, the president intervened again in the case, saying that the commando should remain in the unit.
Referring to the pin that signifies membership in the SEALs, Trump said on Twitter that “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” He added: “This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”
One argument that officials said the Pentagon is relying on is the assumption that a tweet does not constitute a formal presidential order. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conveyed to the president that if he followed up that tweet with a direct order, there would be huge consequences: Trump would lose Spencer and Green, further infuriate his top military leadership and do untold damage to decades of military justice doctrine, according to administration officials.
On Saturday, Spencer denied that he had threatened to step down. “Contrary to popular belief, I am still here,” he said during a question-and-answer session at a security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I did not threaten to resign. But let us just say we are here to talk about external threats, and Eddie Gallagher is not one of them.”
Esper and Milley had scrambled to come up with a face-saving compromise this past week in the hope that Trump could be persuaded to change his mind.
Administration officials said they now hoped that Trump would allow the proceedings to continue, but it is unclear whether the president will do so. The debate over Gallagher comes as Trump, facing a difficult reelection battle and an impeachment inquiry, has increasingly sought to highlight his role as commander in chief.
Since 2011, the Navy has revoked more than 150 Trident pins. For Gallagher to lose his, a peer-review board composed of one SEAL officer and four senior enlisted SEALs must first review evidence to determine his status. Gallagher can speak to the board but must do so without his lawyers, a Defense Department official said. He can call witnesses, and he can appeal the final decision of the board if it goes against him.
Gallagher’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said the president was right to stop the process of ousting the commando, calling the Navy’s move clear retribution just days after the president’s decision to restore his rank.
“With the timing, it’s difficult to see how this was anything but a direct, public rebuke to the president,” Parlatore said. “So I can’t see how the secretary of defense or anyone else is going to convince the president that is OK.”
There is precedent for presidents intervening in military justice matters. John F. Kennedy stopped the punishment of an Army Reserve soldier who was court-martialed for bad-mouthing him. Abraham Lincoln infuriated some of his generals by regularly combing through court-martial orders for Union troops who were charged with desertion and other crimes and scrawling impromptu one-line orders for leniency, like “Let him fight instead of being shot.”
But experts say the constitutional arrangement of civilian control over the military can become strained when a president disregards the counsel of generals and admirals, or never seeks it in the first place.
On Friday, Spencer made clear that he wanted to move forward with the matter, which could strip Gallagher of his Trident pin. “I believe the process matters for good order and discipline,” he told Reuters in an interview at the security forum in Nova Scotia.
On Saturday, a Navy spokesman pointed to those remarks. “The secretary’s comments are in line with current White House guidance,” said Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the chief spokesman for the Navy.
A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
The gold insignia Trident pin is one of the most revered in the military. It features an eagle on an anchor, clutching a flintlock pistol and a trident, and represents the grit of sailors who made it through some of the toughest training in the Navy, and are given some of the riskiest missions. It stands for fidelity and sacrifice. Even in death, the pin plays a role: SEALs pound their pins into the wood of fallen comrades’ caskets.
The Pentagon had already been quietly fuming this month after Trump cleared three members of the armed services, including Gallagher, who were accused or had been convicted of war crimes, overruling military leaders who sought to punish them. All three were lionized by conservative commentators who portrayed them as war heroes unfairly prosecuted for actions taken in the heat of battle.
Trump, who was lobbied heavily by the families of the three service members, announced on Nov. 15 that he was reversing the demotion of Gallagher. He also ordered the full pardon of Clint Lorance, a former Army lieutenant who was serving a 19-year sentence in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth for the murder of two civilians; and of Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, an Army Special Forces officer who was facing murder charges for killing an unarmed Afghan he believed was a Taliban bomb maker.
One of the jurors who convicted Gallagher expressed dismay at the president’s actions in an interview on Friday, noting that the all-military jury had given Gallagher the maximum punishment allowable under the law because it found his behavior so reprehensible. He spoke out for the first time to defend the decision of the jury.
“People keep saying all he did is pose in a photo and there were lots of other guys in the photo,” said the juror, who asked that his name not be used to protect the privacy of the deliberations. “But he was the senior enlisted guy there, the oldest, the most experienced. He should have set an example for good order and discipline. He should have ensured stuff like that wasn’t happening. And he didn’t. He doesn’t deserve to wear chief’s anchors.”
The juror said he hoped the Trident review process would be allowed to go forward, adding, “Let other SEALs decide if he deserves to be a SEAL.”