US defence secretary Mark Esper said that President Donald Trump gave him a direct order to allow a Navy Seal accused of war crimes to retire without losing his Seal status.
Mr Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that Mr Trump’s order was the reason he announced on Sunday that Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher would be allowed to retire with his Trident Pin, retaining his status as a Seal.
Last week Mr Trump had tweeted that he wanted Mr Gallagher to be allowed to retire as a Seal, but Mr Esper’s comments on Monday revealed that Mr Trump had given the defence secretary a direct order to make this happen.
Mr Gallagher 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.
In his remarks, Mr Esper also made the accusation that Navy secretary Richard Spencer last week had secretly offered to the White House to rig the Navy disciplinary process to ensure that Mr Gallagher not lose his Trident. He did not say how.
“No. I asked, and I never got an answer,” Mr Esper said.
Mr Esper fired Mr Spencer on Sunday, saying he had lost trust in him.
Mr Spencer has not responded to requests for comment on Mr Esper’s accusation.
However, in a letter on Sunday to Mr Trump acknowledging his firing, Mr Spencer gave a different version of his thinking.
Mr Spencer said he could not in good conscience follow an order that he believed would undermine the principle of good order and discipline in the military – suggesting that he had been – or expected to be – ordered to stop the peer-review process for Mr Gallagher.
....honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin. Admiral and now Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite will be nominated by me to be the new Secretary of the Navy. A man of great achievement and success, I know Ken will do an outstanding job!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 24, 2019
Mr Esper said he had previously advocated for allowing the Navy peer-review board go forward on December 2. But when Mr Trump gave him a “verbal instruction” on Sunday to stop the process, he did so.
“The commander in chief has certain constitutional rights and powers which he is free to exercise, as many presidents have done in the past,” Mr Esper said. “Again, these are constitutional powers.”
Mr Esper did not say explicitly that he disagreed with Mr Trump’s order.
Once Mr Trump gave the order, Mr Esper said he responded, “Roger. I got it.”
“I can control what I can control,” he told reporters. The president, he said, “has every right” to issue such an order.
The commander in chief has certain constitutional rights and powers which he is free to exercise, as many presidents have done in the pastUS defence secretary Mark Esper
On Sunday afternoon Mr Esper called Mr Spencer and told him he was being fired.
Mr Spencer “took it in stride” and said he would have a resignation letter to him within 30 minutes – “and he did”.
In that letter, Mr Spencer made no mention of what Mr Esper called Mr Spencer’s secret deal with the White House.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr Esper said it was best, under the extraordinary circumstances set in motion last week, that the Gallagher review board not proceed as planned.
He said he believes in the military justice system, but in this case it had become untenable.
“As professional as they are,” he said of the board members, “no matter what they would decide, they would be criticised 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, fully focused on their warfighting mission.”