Donald Trump nominates new navy chief after wrangle over war crimes case

25 November 2019, 10:14 | Updated: 25 November 2019, 11:48

Trump
Trump. Picture: PA

Richard Spencer was fired following a dispute over potential disciplinary action against a Navy Seal who had been acquitted of murder.

President Donald Trump has nominated a new Navy secretary following the removal of Richard Spencer over the case of a Seal who was facing disciplinary action following his acquittal over alleged war crimes in Iraq.

US defence secretary Mark Esper said he had lost confidence in Navy secretary Richard Spencer and alleged that Mr Spencer proposed a deal with the White House behind his back to resolve the case of a Seal, as members of the elite force are known.

Mr Trump has championed the matter of Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted of murder in the stabbing death of an Islamic State militant captive but convicted of posing with the corpse while in Iraq in 2017.

Mr Spencer’s firing was a dramatic turn in the fast-changing and politically charged controversy.

It exposed fissures in Mr Trump’s relationship with the highest ranks of the US military and raised questions about the appropriate role of a commander in chief in matters of military justice.

Mr Gallagher was demoted from chief petty officer to a first class petty officer after his conviction by a military jury.

Mr Trump, however, restored Mr Gallagher’s rank this month.

The situation escalated again in recent days.

On Wednesday, the Navy had notified Mr Gallagher that he would face a Navy Seal review board to determine if he should be allowed to remain in the elite force.

While Mr Trump then tweeted that he would not allow the Navy to remove Mr Gallagher from the Seals by taking away his Trident Pin, which designates a Seal member, the White House told the Navy it could proceed as planned, according to a Navy officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

US Navy Seal Murder Case
Richard Spencer has been fired as US navy secretary (Alex Brandon/AP)

That initially appeared to defuse the situation.

The Navy Seal review board was due to hear Mr Gallagher’s case on December 2.

Mr Spencer, speaking on Saturday at an international security forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said that he did not consider a tweet by Mr Trump a formal order to stop the Navy review board.

“I need a formal order to act,” Mr Spencer said.

He said of Mr Trump’s tweets: “I don’t interpret them as a formal order.”

But on Sunday, Mr Esper said he had learned that Mr Spencer had “privately” proposed to the White House that Gallagher be allowed to retire in his current rank and without losing his status as a Seal.

Mr Esper said Mr Spencer had not told him of the proposal to the White House, causing him to lose “trust and confidence”.

A spokesperson for Mr Spencer, Navy Commander. Sarah Higgins, said Mr Spencer had no immediate comment.

The White House did not provide details of Mr Spencer’s alleged private proposal regarding Mr Gallagher.

In yet another twist, Mr Esper also directed on Sunday that Mr Gallagher be allowed to retire at the end of this month, and that the Navy review board that was scheduled to hear his case starting December 2 be cancelled.

At Mr Esper’s direction, Mr Gallagher will be allowed to retire as a Seal at his current rank.

That effectively gives Mr Trump the outcome he sought.

In a letter to Mr Trump acknowledging “my termination”, Mr Spencer said he had concluded that he and the president appear no longer to share the same understanding of “the key principle of good order and discipline.”

“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he wrote.

He did not cite a specific order.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Mr Esper’s position had been that the Navy’s disciplinary process should be allowed to “play itself out objectively and deliberately”.

“However, at this point, given the events of the last few days,” Mr Esper decided that Mr Gallagher should be allowed to retain his Seal status, Mr Hoffman said.

He said Mr Esper had concluded that Mr Gallagher could not, under the circumstances, receive a fair deal from the Navy.

In the written statement, Mr Esper said of Mr Spencer: “I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official.

“Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well.”

Mr Gallagher, speaking Sunday on Fox & Friends, alleged the Navy was acting in retaliation.

“They could have taken my Trident at any time they wanted,” he said.

“Now they’re trying to take it after the president restored my rank.”

Those who have their Trident pins removed will no longer be Seals but could remain in the Navy.

The Navy has revoked 154 Trident pins since 2011.

Mr Spencer, 65, had served as Navy secretary since August 2017.

US Navy Seal Murder Case
Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher (Gregory Bull/PA)

He was a Wall Street investment banker and is a veteran of the Marine Corps.

He and Mr Esper were Pentagon peers during the period that Mr Esper served as Army secretary, prior to being sworn in as defence secretary last July.

In a series of tweets Sunday evening, Mr Trump said he had been unhappy with the Navy’s handling of the Gallagher case.

“Likewise, large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures were not addressed to my satisfaction,” Mr Trump added without specifics.

Mr Trump said he was nominating Kenneth Braithwaite, a retired Navy rear admiral and the current US ambassador to Norway, to succeed Mr Spencer.

In a tweet, Mr Trump called Mr Braithwaite “a man of great achievement and success.”