(CNN)Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said President Donald Trump ordered him to allow a controversial Navy SEAL accused of war crimes to keep his status in the elite service, despite resistance from Navy leaders.
Esper said that on Sunday Trump “gave me an order” that Eddie Gallagher would retain his Trident, the pin worn by Navy SEALS that symbolizes their membership in the elite military community.
“The case ofEddie Gallagherhas dragged on for months and has distracted too many. end, “Esper said Monday. “Eddie Gallagher will retain his Trident as the Commander in Chief directed and will retire at the end of this month.”
‘Secret agreement ‘
Esper spoke a day after he fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer over Gallagher, who has been implicated in war crimes whose case has raised tensions among the military leaders and the White House.
“Contrary to the narrative that some want to put forward in the media, this dismissal is not about Eddie Gallagher, it’s about Secretary Spencer and the chain of command, “Esper said Monday.
Esper said he spoke to Trump “once or twice on Saturday” and been in contact with other military leaders, including the chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley.
“I recall for certain on Sunday when I talked to the President to update him on the situation where he said, ‘what about the pin, I want Eddie’s’ – he wanted Eddie Gallagher’s pin restored and I said, ‘Roger, I got it.’ “
Esper said in his Sunday statement that he had asked Spencer to resign because he had lost “trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor” after he discovered that Spencer had been working on a “secret agreement with the White House,” according to a senior defense official.
While Esper said Sunday he was “deeply troubled” by Spencer’s conduct, the former Navy Secretary used his resignation letter to suggest that Trump is undermining the “key principle of good order and discipline “of the US military by intervening in Gallagher’s case.
On Monday, Esper essentially said that Gallagher’s case had become so fraught that any decision about it would come in for criticism. The defense secretary said he wanted the Navy to move on.
Speaking of senior Naval officers, Esper said that, despite their professionalism, no matter what they decided, “they would be criticized from many sides, which would further drag this issue on, dividing the institution. I want the SEALs and the Navy to move beyond this now and get fully focused on their warfighting mission. “
Gallagher had been convicted of bringing discredit to the armed services after posing next to a dead ISIS fighter’s body, which is against regulations. He was demoted for that offense and acquitted of a separate murder charge.
Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion a week ago and pardoned two other servicemembers accused of war crimes, deeply upsetting military leaders who had warned the President that such a move could undermine the forces’ order and discipline, damage the integrity of the military justice system and erode the confidence of US allies and partners who host US troops.
In response, military officials launched a formal review to determine if Gallagher was fit to serve, which is protocol after a conviction. That review was expected to lead to his expulsion. When Trump vowed on Twitter that he would never permit the Navy to revoke the Gallagher’s membership in the elite group, Spencer reported reached out behind the scenes.
He suggested to the White House that Gallagher’s review go ahead, but proposed a secret guarantee that Gallagher would be allowed to keep his status as a Navy SEAL, according to the senior defense official . In public, Spencer took a very different stand, saying he would push forward with a review regardless.
Violating chain of command
Esper’s discovery of Spencer’s off-the-books effort prompted him to ask for Spencer’s resignation, according Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. Spencer’s decision to circumvent his chain of command – namely Esper – and go straight to the White House was a violation of military policy, according to the senior defense official.
Esper was also riled by the disconnect between Spencer’s private dealmaking and his public posturing, according to the statement. Esper felt Spencer’s “public statements did not match up” with what he had been doing privately, according to the senior defense official.
After Trump’s tweet saying he would never let the Navy strip Gallagher of his SEAL status, Spencer told an audience at the Halifax Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada, that he felt the process should go forward because it “matters for good order and discipline.”