Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired the Navy’s top official Sunday over his handling of Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher’s war crimes case, a move that signals an end to a public feud between defense leaders and President Donald Trump.
Defense leaders and Trump gave three different explanations for Navy Secretary Richard Spencer’s firing Sunday. However, all agreed it involved the case of Gallagher, who was acquitted of multiple war crimes in July.
The firing occurred one day after The New York Times and NBC News reported Spencer threatened to resign over Trump’s continued interference in the case — a threat Spencer denied Saturday.
A statement by the Pentagon said Spencer was fired after Esper learned that he allegedly tried to work a backroom deal with Trump over Gallagher — a deal that would have allowed Gallagher to keep his pin and retire as a SEAL as long as Trump allowed the Navy to conduct a planned review board.
The Navy’s plans to review Gallagher’s status as a SEAL and potentially strip the chief of his coveted SEAL trident pin had come under fire last week by Gallagher’s media surrogates and attorneys.
Spencer never told Esper about his attempted deal with Trump, the statement said, and that the move conflicted with his public statements about the case.
“I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official,” Spencer said in the statement. “Unfortunately, as a result, I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position.”
On Twitter, Trump said the firing was due to Gallagher’s treatment by the Navy, who he said was treated “very badly.” He also cited unspecified “large cost overruns.”
“Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honor that he has earned, including his Trident Pin,” Trump said in a tweet. “Admiral and now Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite will be nominated by me to be the new Secretary of the Navy.”
In a letter to Trump acknowledging his firing, Spencer offered a different explanation.
“I no longer share the same understanding (of military law) with the Commander in Chief who appointed me,” Spencer said. “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Gallagher was acquitted of murder in the stabbing death of an Islamic State militant captive but convicted of posing with the corpse while in Iraq in 2017.
Spencer’s ousting is the culmination of a conflict between defense department leaders and Trump that began Nov. 15 when the president pardoned two soldiers involved in war crimes cases and restored Gallagher’s rank to chief, or E-7.
Late Sunday, Gallagher issued a statement to Fox News personality Pete Hegseth, who has personally lobbied on Gallagher’s behalf to the president and interviewed Gallagher and his family several times on Fox & Friends.
“President Donald Trump you have my deepest gratitude and thanks,” Gallagher said. “You are a true leader and exactly what the military and this nation needs.”
Gallagher was charged with killing a wounded ISIS detainee and shooting civilian during a deployment to Mosul, Iraq in 2017. Upon his platoon’s return to San Diego, several of his SEAL teammates reported Gallagher to SEAL leadership. He was charged in November 2018.
In March, Trump first intervened in the case when, via Twitter, he ordered Gallagher released from the Miramar brig.
Gallagher’s court-martial was further marred by misconduct. The lead prosecutor was booted from the case weeks before the trial was set to begin. He, along with agents at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, violated Gallagher’s constitutional rights when they launched an email tracking operation against defense attorneys in order to identify the source of leaks to reporters.
A teammate of Gallagher’s, a SEAL medic, testified that he suffocated the wounded ISIS fighter to death after Gallagher stabbed the detainee in the neck.
Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious charges against him and convicted of one count of posing for a photo with the fighter’s corpse.
A military jury ordered Gallagher reduced in rank one pay grade, from chief petty officer to petty officer 1st class, or E-7 to E-6.
Trump tweeted his congratulations upon Gallagher’s acquittal.
In November, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, affirmed the jury’s sentence.
Then, on Nov. 15, Trump restored Gallagher’s rank to chief.
On Wednesday, Rear Adm. Collin Green, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, notified Gallagher and four other SEALs that their status as members of the elite community would be reviewed by so-called “trident review boards,” a move met with heavy criticism from Gallagher’s surrogates.
One of Gallagher’s attorneys, Timothy Parlatore, said the move to review the SEALs was that of a “coward” during a Thursday morning interview on Fox & Friends — a show known to be a favorite of Trump’s. About an hour later, Trump tweeted the Navy would not be taking Gallagher’s SEAL trident.
However, Navy officials told The New York Times on Saturday that the service did not view the tweet as an official order.
Navy officials declined to comment on Spencer’s firing Sunday and directed questions to the office of the Defense Secretary. A spokeswoman for the Navy SEALs did not return requests for comment Sunday.
The Defense Department statement says acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modley will meet with Gilday Monday to discuss “the way ahead.”