Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher was demoted following his conviction in July, but Trump reinstated his rank earlier this month. Top Pentagon officials and military leaders, including Esper, had reportedly warned the president that his intervention could threaten the integrity of the military justice system.
Despite Trump’s decision to reverse Gallagher’s demotion, the Navy said it would continue its disciplinary hearings against Gallagher and would not allow him to wear his Trident pin, a symbol of his membership in the elite SEAL team.
But Trump tweeted Thursday that the Navy would not be taking away Gallagher’s pin, saying the SEAL’s case was “handled very badly from the beginning.”
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said Saturday that he did not view Trump’s tweet as an order and would continue with the disciplinary process unless he received official instructions from the president. Behind the scenes, he reportedly threatened to resign over Trump’s interference.
On Sunday, Esper fired Spencer over his handling of the Gallagher case, stating he no longer trusted the Navy’s top civilian official.
The Defense Department and White House said Spencer, unbeknownst to Esper, tried to broker a side deal with the White House in which he would make sure Gallagher kept his Trident pin if Trump would allow the disciplinary process to play out.
Esper on Monday said he was “flabbergasted” to learn of Spencer’s secret meeting with the White House.
“This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to, and contrary to Secretary Spencer’s public position,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. “[Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley] and I were completely caught off-guard, and realized that it had undermined everything we had been discussing with the president.”
Gallagher was charged in 2018 with multiple war crimes stemming from his final deployment in Iraq, including shooting at civilians and stabbing to death a teenager believed to be an Islamic State fighter who had been captured by U.S. forces. His alleged misconduct was reported by members of his own platoon.
Gallagher was acquitted in July of all but one of the charges: unlawfully posing in a photograph with the corpse of the captive Iraqi teenager. The offense carried a maximum sentence of four months imprisonment, but he was released since he had already served seven months in pre-trial custody.
In an interview with “Fox & Friends” on Sunday, Gallagher praised Trump for “stepping in” and “doing the right thing” with his case.
“This is all about ego and retaliation,” he said of Navy officials pushing for his ouster from the SEALs. “I just want to retire peacefully with all the honors I’ve earned.”