In a surprise development, Defense Secretary Mark Esper suddenly fired Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer on Sunday, The Washington Post reported. Esper said that he no longer had “confidence” in Spencer in the wake of a controversy over the discipline of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who appears to have strong backing from President Donald Trump despite being accused of war crimes.
Gallagher was acquitted in a military trial of deliberately shooting unarmed civilians — including a young schoolgirl and an elderly man — from a sniper’s perch in Mosul, Iraq. But the court convicted Gallagher on a lesser charge of posing for a photograph with the corpse of a prisoner.
Trump, however, has seemingly backed Gallagher. When the Navy reduced the SEAL in rank, the president ordered his rank restored. The Navy later announced a “trident review” that could result in the removal of the insignia worn by members of its elite commando unit. Removing the trident would mean that Gallagher was effectively kicked out of the SEALs.
But Trump intervened with a tweet declaring that “the Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin,” as quoted by The San Diego Union-Tribune. The president slammed the Navy in the tweet, saying that Gallagher’s case was “handled very badly from the beginning.”
According to published reports, Spencer considered handing in his resignation to protest Trump’s intervention in the Gallagher disciplinary proceedings, though he would later deny this publicly. But on Sunday, Spencer was out of a job anyway.
Per The Washington Post, Esper was angered when Spencer went directly to Trump with a proposal that would have allowed Gallagher to retire from the SEALs with his trident intact. In exchange, the president would agree to stop intervening in the Navy’s disciplinary process against the accused war criminal.
Esper, in a statement quoted by The Washington Post, says that he was “deeply troubled” that Spencer had not first presented the proposal to him before going to the White House.
“Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position,” Esper said in the statement.
On March 30 of this year, Trump phoned Spencer at 4 a.m. to demand that Gallagher be released from the Navy brig as he awaited trial on the war crimes charges — a call that “surprised” Spencer, according to an earlier Washington Post report.
Spencer had been attempting to impose tighter discipline on the SEALs, but he ultimately agreed to move Gallagher to a less restrictive confinement situation. Trump then proposed issuing a full pardon to Gallagher, but the then-Navy secretary was able to talk him out of it, according to The Post.