Richard Spencer, the Navy secretary who resigned just a day ago, said Monday that President Donald Trump’s decision to block the Pentagon’s review of convicted war criminal and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher sends a message “that you can get away with things.”
Spencer defended his handling of Chief Petty Officer Gallagher’s controversial case in a CBS interview with David Martin, the first time Spencer has spoken out about it since Defense Secretary Mark Esper forced him to step down on Sunday for disapproving of Trump’s intervention in military disciplinary proceedings.
Gallagher was found guilty in July of war crimes. Navy officials were conducting an administrative review of Gallagher’s Trident pin, which denotes his membership in the elite SEAL group, when Trump intervened on Gallagher’s behalf.
“Well, what message does it send?” Martin asked.
“That you can get away with things. We have to have good order and discipline,” Spencer said. “It’s the backbone of what we do, and the Trident review process with the senior enlisted reviewing fellow senior enlisted is critical. The senior enlisted of our military are the backbone of our military. They are the girder of good order and discipline. They can handle this, they can handle this in each one of their communities.”
The Navy demoted Gallagher after he was convicted in military court of unlawfully posing for a photo with a captured teenage ISIS fighter’s corpse in Iraq. Gallagher was also accused of murdering the captured fighter and threatening fellow SEALs, but he was acquitted of those charges. Gallagher’s misconduct was reported by members of his own platoon, though he has since been embraced by the conservative movement and made appearances on right-wing media.
Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion on Nov. 15, though the Navy said it would continue its disciplinary hearings against the SEAL and would not allow him to wear his Trident pin. The president tweeted Thursday that the Navy would not take away Gallagher’s pin, but Spencer said Saturday that he did not view Trump’s tweet as an order and would continue with the disciplinary process unless the president gives official orders to block the proceedings.
Spencer reportedly feared that Trump’s interference in the disciplinary proceedings threatened the military justice system’s integrity, and threatened to resign if the president officially ordered the proceedings against Gallagher to end. Esper told reporters Monday that Trump gave him direct orders to stop proceedings against Gallagher.
Esper said Spencer was ousted because he went behind his back to try and broker a side deal with the White House in which the Navy secretary would make sure Gallagher kept his Trident pin if Trump allowed the disciplinary proceedings to continue.
In his interview, Spencer told Martin that it’s true he did not directly inform Esper about his plan to broker a deal with the White House on Gallagher’s case because the defense secretary was overseas, but he said he did inform Esper’s chief of staff about it.
In his resignation letter, Spencer said he and Trump “no longer share the same understanding” and that he “cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violated a sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag, and my faith to support defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Spencer also said he disagreed with Trump’s Monday comments calling Gallagher a “great fighter.”
“I don’t think he really understands the full definition of a war fighter. A war fighter is a profession of arms,” Spencer said of Trump. “And a profession of arms has standards that they have to be held to and that they hold themselves to.”
Trump announced U.S. Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite as his nominee to replace Spencer. Gallagher is set to retire from the Navy this weekend.