A former Navy secretary who was fired by Donald Trump has attacked the President’s intervention in a war crimes case involving a Navy SEAL as "shocking and unprecedented".
Richard Spencer, who was sacked this week for his handling of the case, wrote in the Washington Post that the US President “has very little understanding” of how the American military works or "what it means to fight ethically or be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices".
Mr Spencer had been working with the White House on a private deal that would allow Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher – who was convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State extremist in Iraq – to retire without losing his SEAL status. In the article, he admitted that this was a mistake but also said that Mr Trump’s actions were damaging to the US military.
Mr Spencer claimed that the President had involved himself in the Gallagher case “almost from the start,” by telephoning Mr Spencer before the SEAL’s court martial started to ask that Mr Gallagher be moved out of confinement at a Navy brig. Mr Spencer said he resisted the President because the presiding judge had decided that confinement was important. Nonetheless, Mr Trump ordered the former Navy secretary to transfer Mr Gallagher from the brig to the equivalent of an enlisted barracks.
Mr Spencer said he believes that Mr Trump’s interest in the case stemmed partly from the way Mr Gallagher’s defence lawyers and others “worked to keep it front and centre in the media.”
Mr Gallagher was acquitted of most charges but submitted his request to retire and the military jury had said he should be demoted.
The President, who had tweeted support for Mr Gallagher and stated that his case had been "handled very badly from the beginning,” short-circuited the Navy’s administrative review of Mr Gallagher’s status by ordering Mr Spencer to restore Mr Gallagher’s rank.
“This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review,” Spencer wrote. “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.”
Last week, Mr Trump tweeted that Mr Gallagher must be allowed to keep his Trident pin, the medal that designates a SEAL member. The Navy had planned to let an administrative board review the question this week, but eventually Mark Esper, the US Defence Secretary, decided to stop that process and let Mr Gallagher retire as a SEAL, as the President had ordered.
On Wednesday, the Navy announced that it had canceled the peer-review boards for three SEAL officers who supervised Mr Gallagher during the Iraq deployment that gave rise to the war crimes charges.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the case was becoming a distraction for the commando force and said there were better ways to address any “failures in conduct, performance, judgment, or professionalism exhibited by these officers.”
“The United States Navy, and the Naval Special Warfare Community specifically, have dangerous and important work to do,” Modly said. “In my judgment, neither deserves the continued distraction and negative attention that recent events have evoked.”
Modly said: “Navy uniformed leaders have my full confidence that they will continue to address challenging cultural issues within the Naval Special Warfare community, instill good order and discipline, and enforce the very highest professional standards we expect from every member of that community.”
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