On Wednesday, fired Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, offering his account of the controversy over the pardon of convicted war criminal Eddie Gallagher and fiercely criticizing President Donald Trump’s judgment in military matters.
“It is highly irregular for a secretary to become deeply involved in most personnel matters,” wrote Spencer. “Normally, military justice works best when senior leadership stays far away. A system that prevents command influence is what separates our armed forces from others. Our system of military justice has helped build the world’s most powerful navy; good leaders get promoted, bad ones get moved out and criminals are punished … We are effective overseas not because we have the best equipment, but because we are professionals. Our troops are held to the highest standards. We expect those who lead our forces to exercise excellent judgment. The soldiers and sailors they lead must be able to count on that.”
“Earlier this year, Gallagher was formally charged with more than a dozen criminal acts, including premeditated murder, which occurred during his eighth deployment overseas,” wrote Spencer. “He was tried in a military court in San Diego and acquitted in July of all charges, except one count of wrongfully posing for photographs with the body of a dead Islamic State fighter. The jury sentenced him to four months, the maximum possible; because he had served that amount of time waiting for trial, he was released.”
“President Trump involved himself in the case almost from the start,” wrote Spencer. “Before the trial began, in March, I received two calls from the president asking me to lift Gallagher’s confinement in a Navy brig; I pushed back twice, because the presiding judge, acting on information about the accused’s conduct, had decided that confinement was important. Eventually, the president ordered me to have him transferred to the equivalent of an enlisted barracks. I came to believe that Trump’s interest in the case stemmed partly from the way the defendant’s lawyers and others had worked to keep it front and center in the media.”
Once the conviction was handed down, wrote Spencer, Gallagher voluntarily put in to retire, but questions remained about whether he would retain his rank, discharge status, and trident pin. “On Nov. 14, partly because the president had already contacted me twice, I sent him a note asking him not to get involved in these questions. The next day, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone called me and said the president would remain involved. Shortly thereafter, I received a second call from Cipollone who said the president would order me to restore Gallagher to the rank of chief.”
“This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review,” wrote Spencer. “It was also a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
Following these exchanges behind the scenes, Trump tweeted that Gallagher would be allowed to keep his trident pin. Spencer informed him that he must go through proper channels — and Trump shortly ordered Defense Secretary Mark Esper to fire him.
“We must now move on and learn from what has transpired. The public should know that we have extensive screening procedures in place to assess the health and well-being of our forces. But we must keep fine-tuning those procedures to prevent a case such as this one from happening again,” concluded. Spencer. “More importantly, Americans need to know that 99.9 percent of our uniformed members always have, always are and always will make the right decision. Our allies need to know that we remain a force for good, and to please bear with us as we move through this moment in time.”
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