I’m as confused as Jazz is about what happened here. The NYT reported on Saturday morning that Navy Secretary Richard Spencer had privately threatened to resign in protest if Trump short-circuited the Navy’s review of Eddie Gallagher and insisted that he keep his Trident Pin as a SEAL. Then Spencer told an audience at an event on Saturday afternoon that he’d never threatened to resign. On Sunday morning news broke that Trump was backing off his demand about Gallagher and would let the Navy’s process go forward. At that point it looked like maybe Spencer *had* given Trump an ultimatum and that it had paid off.
But wait. A few hours later, word broke that Spencer was fired, allegedly because he had proposed to the White House a deal in which Trump would let the Navy conduct its review of Gallagher but Gallagher would keep his Trident in the end, i.e. the process would be rigged to produce the result the president wanted. Supposedly Mark Esper, the defense secretary, hadn’t been looped in on that offer. Spencer had gone behind his back and therefore he had to go. So maybe Spencer *didn’t* privately threaten to resign, as it sounds like he was okay with Gallagher keeping his pin after all.
But then how to explain his letter to Trump that was released last night, emphasizing that he no longer shared the commander-in-chief’s views about what constitutes “good order and discipline”? “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took,” Spencer wrote. So … he did resign in protest? Or was he fired? Does Esper even have the legal authority to fire Spencer?
And who was it that insisted Spencer must go, Trump or Esper? After all, if Spencer agreed with Trump that Gallagher should keep the pin, there’d be no reason for the president to want him out. Maybe Esper demanded his resignation for going behind his back by trying to broker a deal with the White House.
Sounds like maybe that’s what happened. Esper, not Trump, was the catalyst.
Spencer had “proposed a deal whereby if the president allowed the Navy to handle the case, he would guarantee that Eddie Gallagher would be restored to rank, allowed to retain his Trident and permitted to retire,” Esper said.
This was “completely contrary” to what Esper and the rest of the Pentagon leadership had agreed to, he said, and contrary to Spencer’s public position that the Navy disciplinary process should be allowed to play out with no interference.
Esper said he had previously advocated for allowing the Navy peer-review board go forward Dec. 2. But when Trump gave him a “verbal instruction” 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,” Esper said. “Again, these are constitutional powers.”
Esper claims that he proposed firing Spencer to Trump and Trump okayed it. Maybe Trump resented that Spencer wanted *some* kind of Navy disciplinary process for Gallagher, even a sham process, instead of simply carrying out his orders to restore Gallagher’s status. And maybe Spencer’s letter to Trump was a reflection of that disagreement, with a little anti-Trump PR thrown in for his post-administration career. That is, although Spencer was okay with letting Gallagher keep his pin, he wasn’t okay with nuking the usual process in order to make it happen. That’s the order he couldn’t in good conscience obey. Although apparently Mark Esper sure could.
So by trying to please everyone, Spencer pleased no one. Trump was annoyed, it seems, that Spencer was lobbying him to let the Navy review go forward and Esper was annoyed that he was trying to game that review to let Gallagher keep his pin, as Trump insisted.
I leave it to you to decide which is worse in undermining “good order and discipline,” Trump giving an order that blew up the Navy’s disciplinary procedures for a case like Gallagher’s or Spencer allegedly trying to rig the process to produce the right result. As for Esper, he’s been notably coy in declining to say whether he agrees with Trump’s handling of this matter. Maybe he too considered resigning in protest but decided that he could signal his displeasure for irregular procedures better by canning Spencer for the illicit bargain he offered to Trump than by quitting himself. Esper can’t control the president but he can at least signal down the chain that anyone else who tries to cut procedural corners in order to produce a result he believes Trump will like will find himself out on his ear.
I mean, if he’s going out of his way to let the media know that Trump directly ordered him to let Gallagher keep his pin, one can infer that he’s not a fan of the result. As noted above, it seems that he wanted the review to go forward as it normally would, without presidential interference or a predetermined outcome. Esper also reportedly lobbied Trump personally not to pardon Gallagher and two other soldiers who’d either been accused or already convicted of crimes. But you’re not going to get far as an expert pitting the facts against what Trump thinks he knows:
For over an hour, the senior defense officials described what they believe to be the facts of the case, said officials familiar with the meeting. They carried documents and graphics with them and pointed out that Golsteyn was accused of burying the man he had killed, digging up his remains and then moving them. Lorance had been convicted in the deaths of unarmed men, they added.
Senior defense officials, who learned about Trump’s plan shortly before Hegseth’s announcement, were convinced that Trump was being fed bad information. Two officials said one document that reached the Oval Office stated that the Afghans killed in Lorance’s case were “gunning” their motorcycle at the soldiers — a point often repeated by conservative pundits. Other soldiers testified at Lorance’s trial that the men killed were a couple hundred yards away and not on a motorcycle when the Americans opened fire.
During the meeting, Trump shared the points [Fox News host Pete] Hegseth was making [in private conversations], according to one current and one former administration official. The defense officials tried to correct what they saw as misinformation, the officials said.
Hegseth had been lobbying Trump to pardon the men. Forced to choose between his own defense and Army secretaries and a Fox News buddy, Trump made the only choice he could.
Exit question: Will anyone resign as a result of this? Obviously Esper won’t. Spencer technically didn’t, although his letter after being fired made his dismissal feel like a resignation. The NYT reported recently that the head of the SEALs, Rear Adm. Collin Green, is also unhappy with the idea of the president circumventing the Navy’s review process to give Gallagher a pass. Is he staying on or is he out?