Defense Secretary Mark Esper went into further detail Monday on why he fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer following a controversy involving a Navy SEAL involved in a botched murder court-martial proceeding.
Esper explained that Spencer cut a secret deal with the White House without of Esper’s involvement regarding the Navy’s intention to discipline Chief Eddie Gallagher, a SEAL acquitted of murder charges over the killing of a terrorist in Iraq.
Navy officials were reportedly planning an additional review of the allegations and the disposition of the case. Spencer presented a proposal to President Trump noting that if he allowed the review to proceed, Gallagher could keep his Trident pin, the symbol SEALs wear to designate their membership in the elite military organization.
Esper explained at a Pentagon briefing on Monday that Spencer was dismissed because he did not respect the chain of command when he went behind his back to present a plan to the White House.
The secret proposal left him “flabbergasted,” Esper said.
“A senior White House official took [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and me] aside and said, ‘Oh, by the way, did you know that …’ and then told me what had happened, that this proposal had been brought by Secretary Spencer, and we had no knowledge whatsoever,” Esper said.
“We were flabbergasted by it, and quite surprised and caught completely off guard.”
According to Esper, Spencer had approached the president with a deal regarding Gallagher: the SEAL would be guaranteed to keep his Trident if Trump allowed the Navy to proceed with a review board on the matter in a nod to proper procedures and protocol.
“This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to, and contrary to Secretary Spencer’s public position,” Esper said.
When approached, Esper said Spencer had been “forthright” and acknowledged his proposal.
Over the weekend, Spencer denied reports that he threatened to resign if President Trump did not let the Navy’s review of Gallagher’s case go forward.
But Esper said that it was “his understanding” that Spencer did intend to leave his position.
“Secretary Spencer said to me that he was … likely, probably, going to resign if he was forced to [allow Gallagher to] retain the trident,” Esper said.
“So he had conveyed to me, I had every reason to believe that he was going to resign, that it was a threat to resign. So that was not true.”
Esper announced Sunday night that he was curtailing review proceedings for Gallagher and would allow him to keep his Trident. He added that the politicization of the case would put undue pressure on a prospective review board.
“The case of Eddie Gallagher has dragged on for months and it’s distracting. To me, it must end,” he said. “Eddie Gallagher will return as the commander in chief directed and will retire at the end of this month.
“It is also my view that I believe strongly in process. The issue should not now be thrown into the laps of a board of [senior noncommissioned officers] to sort out, as professional as they are, no matter what they decide. They would be criticized for many sides, which would further drag this issue on dividing the institution,” Esper said.
Gallagher was recently acquitted of murder charges involving an ISIS suspect after another special operations member who was immunized against prosecution admitted in court that he had committed the killing instead.
However, Gallagher was disciplined for posing over the dead terrorist’s body for a photo.
The case was further marred by the discovery that Judge Advocate General officers — the military’s prosecutors — electronically spied on Gallagher’s attorney before the trial.