One person who appears to not be in the holiday spirit this week is recently fired Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer. After putting on something of a loyalist face during the Eddie Gallagher brouhaha, Spencer has taken a decidedly different tone now that he’s cleaned out his desk. On Thanksgiving eve, he took to the pages of the Washington Post with an op-ed discussing why he felt he was fired and venting his frustrations with the President. Apparently there will be no cranberry sauce for Donald Trump at Spencer’s table.
This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review. 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.
Given my desire to resolve a festering issue, I tried to find a way that would prevent the president from further involvement while trying all avenues to get Gallagher’s file in front of a peer-review board. Why? The Naval Special Warfare community owns the Trident pin, not the secretary of the Navy, not the defense secretary, not even the president. If the review board concluded that Gallagher deserved to keep it, so be it
For what it’s worth, as I’ve written here before, I tend to agree with Spencer’s assessment of how this situation was handled. Whether or not it justified an op-ed in the Washington Post is left to the eye of the beholder. Perhaps Donald Trump’s lack of personal military experience played a role here, but I agree that micromanaging personnel disciplinary matters is no way to keep the military running efficiently. But now that’s all water under the bridge, and everyone is just going to have to move on.
Some other people are having a much happier Thanksgiving today and those would be the three other Navy SEALs who previously received pardons for charges stemming from the same case. Hearings regarding all of their cases have also been canceled by order of the new, incoming Secretary of the Navy. (NPR)
Meanwhile, in a new development, the Navy is canceling a review hearing for three other SEALs implicated in the Gallagher war crimes case. The move allows Lt. Jacob Portier, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch and Lt. Thomas MacNeil to keep their coveted Trident pins, which symbolize their membership in the elite SEALs unit. Thomas Modly who became Acting Secretary of the Navy this week said in a statement that neither the Navy nor the SEALs… “deserve the continued distraction and negative attention that recent events have evoked.”
Modly’s announcement follows Trump’s declaration on Twitter that the Navy would not be taking away Gallagher’s Trident pin.
So Portier, Breisch and MacNeil will all keep their Trident pins and their status as SEALs. Each of their cases had its own complications. For example, Portier was accused not of war crimes himself, but of failing to promptly report and forward information about what Gallagher was accused of doing up the chain of command. Given that Gallagher was later acquitted of all the serious charges, how much culpability should have been assigned to him is in question.
Breisch was similarly accused of covering up the same war crimes. MacNeil was actually one of the SEALs accusing Gallagher of the murder but was later swept up in the aftermath of the same incident.
The guilt or innocence of these men is no longer really the question since their legal cases have essentially been flushed. And as both the Commander in Chief and the President, Donald Trump was within his rights to issue these orders and pardons. But that doesn’t mean it was the best decision. Anyone who has been in the service knows that the handling of disciplinary matters is frequently different under the Uniform Code of Military Justice than what most people are used to in the civilian world. And maintaining good discipline in the ranks is critical to the success and viability of our military. Hopefully, the lessons from this episode will sink in and we won’t run into more of these internecine battles.