Navy secretary fired in dispute over SEAL’s punishment
President Trump’s clash with military leaders over the demotion of a Navy SEAL led to the firing this week of the Navy secretary—while the SEAL, Eddie Gallagher, was allowed to retire without sanctions. Earlier this month, Trump pardoned two soldiers charged with war crimes and restored the rank of Gallagher, who had been accused of shooting Afghan civilians and killing an ISIS captive with a hunting knife. The case of Gallagher, who was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing for photos with a captive’s dead body, became a rallying cry for Trump, who charged that the military was “training our boys to be killing machines” and then prosecuting them for doing their jobs. The Navy secretary, Richard Spencer, had opposed Trump’s order to let Gallagher leave the military with his Trident pin, as a member of the SEALs. “I no longer share the same understanding with the commander in chief who appointed me,” Spencer said, “in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Spencer was fired for breaking the chain of command by going to the White House to seek a compromise on Gallagher’s punishment. Trump, however, said Spencer was “terminated” primarily because Gallagher’s case wasn’t “addressed to my satisfaction.” Conservative lawmakers and Fox News have increasingly defended soldiers accused of war crimes; Trump called Gallagher “one of the ultimate fighters” and has reportedly discussed bringing out the troops he’s pardoned at campaign rallies or next year’s Republican National Convention.
What the columnists said
Trump is doing “grievous damage” to military values, said former Navy secretaries Richard Danzig and Sean O’Keefe in The New York Times. “The armed forces are not an extension of the White House,” and discipline ought to be decided by military peers. A jury convicted Gallagher of posing with a corpse and sending the photo with the note “I have a cool story for you when I get back. I have got my knife skills on.” That chilling message doesn’t represent our values.
What really undermines the military’s values, said retired Marine Lt. Col. David Gurfein in USA Today, is when officers or top civilian leaders like Spencer “debate, complain, or act in defiance” of the commander in chief’s decisions. That’s why Spencer had to go. Even if Spencer was out of line, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, Trump is still wrong to portray troops as “killing machines.” Our soldiers “kill when needed but within the laws of war”; murdering unarmed civilians is what ISIS fighters do. How can Naval officers enforce discipline in SEAL units when Trump shows such “tolerance for misbehavior”?
Above all, Spencer feared Trump was “subverting military justice,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. The culture of “internal accountability” is so important that “SEAL peer-review panels have taken away more than 150 Trident pins since 2011.” Gallagher may be a hero in the “Trump echo chamber,” but there’s little support in the special forces for an “irascible, vengeful commander in chief” sweeping away traditional standards of conduct. ■