The Secretary of the Navy doesn't take orders via tweet (Update: Trump is out of it)

President Trump’s decision to restore the rank of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher continues to stir the waters of the military. But as might be expected, the press is getting some of the details of the story wrong. As you will recall, Gallagher was cleared of most charges related to alleged war crimes in Iraq but was convicted of improper behavior for posing with the corpse of a teenage ISIS fighter. Now a panel of his fellow SEALs is scheduled to hold hearings to decide if Gallagher’s Trident pin should be taken away, stripping him of his status as a member of the elite fighting force.

The President already weighed in on Twitter, saying that Gallagher should definitely not lose his position as a member of the SEALs. NBC News jumped into the fray, claiming that the Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, was threatening to resign if Trump interfered in the process. But when asked directly about the report, Spencer said he’d never threatened any such thing and that orders from the Commander in Chief had to be obeyed. (Associated Press)

Spencer, speaking on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada, said if the president requests the process to stop, the process stops.

“Good order and discipline is also obeying the orders of the President of the United States,” he said.

Despite the differing views with the president over the appropriate handling of the case, Spencer told reporters that he has not threatened to resign over the issue. But he acknowledged that he serves at the pleasure of the president.

Spencer made it very clear in repeated answers that the final decision in all matters related to the military rests with the President. But at the same time, he said that the hearing over Gallagher’s Trident pin was still scheduled because he hadn’t received a formal order from the President to stop it. And he doesn’t consider a tweet to constitute a formal order.

The secretary of the U.S. Navy said Saturday he doesn’t consider a tweet by President Donald Trump an order and would need a formal order to stop a review of a sailor who could lose his status as a Navy Seal.

“I need a formal order to act,” Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said, and referred to the tweet. “I don’t interpret them as a formal order.”

Spencer spent four years in the Marines as a pilot so he should really understand how orders work. I saw someone on CNN yesterday saying that Trump would have to deliver the order “in writing” in order for it to be official. That’s not correct either. (Trust me… I was in the Navy also.) Orders don’t have to be given in writing. Any superior can issue an order verbally. If the President either meets with Spencer in person or calls him on the phone, he can order him to cancel the Trident pin hearing and that will be that. Spencer said as much himself, telling reporters, “if the president requests the process to stop, the process stops.”

But should it? The President is responsible for general policy and big impactful decisions when it comes to fighting wars. But traditionally, we don’t see presidents micromanaging military personnel decisions at this level. It’s bad for morale and can prove disruptive to the chain of command.

Given the nature of the only thing Gallagher was convicted of, it’s not a sure bet that they’ll boot him out of the SEALs anyway. But if they do, they will have followed the normal process and obeyed the military rules of the road. I realize President Trump is a big supporter of Gallagher’s and has turned his story into a political talking point, but I think it would be a mistake for him to intervene. The SEALs are the best judge of who should or shouldn’t be counted in their ranks. We should leave them to conduct their business in accordance with the rules.

A late update: It appears that the President has chosen the wise course here. The AP is reporting that Spencer received word from the White House that they can proceed with the hearings on Gallagher without interference from the White House. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Trump couldn’t still step in later if it goes badly for Gallagher, but at least for now he’s letting them take care of the matter internally.