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The Real Reason the Navy Stood Up to Trump

Officials say their secretary was fired while attempting to address a real crisis in the special operations community.

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher walks out of military court with his wife Andrea Gallagher during lunch recess on Tuesday, July 2, 2019 in San Diego, CA. He was later acquitted on war crimes charges but convicted on one charge of discrediting the Navy. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

An ugly 10-day dispute between Donald Trump and the U.S. Navy escalated sharply on Sunday, when Secretary of Defense Mark Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who had publicly defied the president in the case of demoted Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher.

Gallagher had been acquitted by a military court of fatally stabbing a wounded ISIS fighter, but convicted of posing for a picture with the murdered fighter’s body. Gallagher’s demotion and the Navy’s subsequent decision to begin stripping him of his highly prized Trident pin, the emblem of the Navy Seals, enraged Trump—who directed in a tweet that Gallagher be returned to his original rank and that he retain his pin. When Spencer demanded that the president put his directive in writing, Esper fired him.

Spencer’s feud with Trump and Esper’s decision dismissing him have roiled the Pentagon. Esper defended his decision by saying the Navy secretary was fired for hiding private conversations he’s had with the White House on the Gallagher issue, while Spencer claimed he resigned because Trump’s directive undermined the Navy’s need for “good order and discipline.” The charges and counter charges (what a senior Pentagon official described as “a classic ‘you can’t fire me, I resign’ tiff”) has sparked the first civil-military confrontation of the Trump era—and the most serious break between the uniformed services and a president since Vietnam. 

“It’s a bad, bad look,” a senior Pentagon civilian told TAC, “and it’s especially bad for Mark Esper. He looks like Trump’s hatchet man.”

But behind the now very public confrontation is a much larger matter. “The real issue here is whether the Navy will be successful in reining in its out-of-control and ill-disciplined special forces units,” the senior Pentagon official added. (The Pentagon was asked to comment on this article, but as of press time TAC had not received a reply.)

Spencer’s dismissal came 10 days after the president announced that he would grant clemency in three cases involving members of the military, two of whom were a part of its elite special operations forces. On November 15, Trump ordered full pardons for Army 1st Lieutenant Clint Lorance and Green Beret Major Mathew Golsteyn, and restored the rank of Gallagher. Lorance was convicted on two counts of second degree murder and Golsteyn was facing charges of murdering an Afghan civilian, while Gallagher was reduced in rank (from Chief Petty Officer to Petty Officer First Class), for posing with the corpse of the young ISIS fighter he was acquitted of killing.

While Trump’s actions in each of the three cases angered senior officers in each of the uniformed services  (“this is a dumb and toxic intervention,” Professor Richard Kohn, a respected expert on civil-military relations at the University of North Carolina, told TAC), its most pernicious impact was felt by the Navy. Senior Navy officers were “stunned” by Trump’s decision on Gallagher, a career Pentagon official said, particularly since they believed that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had convinced the president during a White House meeting not to intervene in any of the cases. 

“It’s been a bad couple of years for the Navy,” this official adds, “and the leadership is trying to tighten things up, especially when it comes to the elite units, like the Navy SEALS. Trump’s decision sends exactly the wrong message.” 

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Milburn, who has been outspoken on the need for more discipline in the military’s special warfare units, agrees: “The question is not whether the president has the right to do what he did,” Milburn told me, “the question is whether it’s the right thing to do. It’s not. We fight with the values we represent; we don’t adopt those of our enemy.”

Even so, Trump’s actions, and his insistence that his directives be carried out, should have ended the controversy (“we have implemented the president’s order,” a Navy official said), but within hours of the November 15 announcement, the situation escalated.

Following Trump’s decision to restore Gallagher to his original rank, Rear Admiral Collin P. Green, the head of the Naval Special Warfare Command, announced that the Navy would review whether Gallagher and three Navy officers who supervised him should be stripped of their Navy Trident. Green’s announcement was seen by many inside the Pentagon (and in the mainstream media), as an attempt to reassert the longstanding prerogative that the uniformed services be allowed to police themselves. 

More simply, Green’s decision to convene a board to determine whether Gallagher should be stripped of his Trident was widely seen as a defiant slap at Trump’s reversal of Gallagher’s demotion. Trump quickly slapped back: “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin,” he tweeted this last Thursday. “This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”  

As it had done previously, the Navy responded with a bland official acceptance of Trump’s decision (“The Navy follows the lawful orders of the President,” an official release noted), but behind the scenes senior Navy officers were furious—and wondering whether they were required to obey a presidential directive in the form of a tweet. 

“The Navy’s senior leaders are damned near in open revolt,” the civilian Pentagon official with whom TAC spoke said within hours of Trump’s tweet. “This is going to be a donnybrook.” The official was prescient. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer responded to the president’s tweet by telling the Navy’s uniformed leadership that he would only follow Trump’s directive if he was given it in writing—and until then the review of whether Gallagher should be stripped of his pin would go forward.

In fact, Spencer was so angered at Trump’s Trident decision that Navy officials told reporters that he was considering resigning. “My understanding is that Spencer’s message asking for clarification on the Trident issue went straight to the White House,” a senior civilian defense official said, “and was also communicated with [Defense Secretary Mark] Esper. And Esper was told that Spencer was considering resigning if the president put his decision in writing.”

Spencer’s anger about the Gallagher decision was communicated to Trump on Thursday night aboard Air Force One, when J.C.S. Chairman Mark Milley, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, Army Chief James McConville, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston urged Trump to allow the military legal process to move forward without his interference. The discussion wasn’t planned, but those in attendance took advantage of their proximity to Trump, who was traveling to Dover Air Force Base to honor the return of two soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The military officers present during the discussion argued that Trump’s intervention could adversely affect troop morale. “The difficulty here is that Trump thinks he’s defending the military, when he’s not,” the senior civilian defense official with whom I spoke argued. “He’s actually undermining what they’re trying to do. He’s weakening them.”

Following his Thursday night discussion aboard Air Force One, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper weighed in with Trump at the White House. Pompeo and Esper reinforced what Trump had heard on Air Force One, and attempted to convince the president that, in the future, he should allow the military justice process to move forward without interference. The senior Pentagon official with whom TAC spoke says that Esper focused on how Trump’s intervention could undermine senior officers in the eyes of their subordinates and warned that in reversing the directives the president could be accused of signaling those in uniform that he will intervene when they break the law. There is little doubt that the vast majority of senior military officers agree.

“This is about good order and discipline. That’s an important phrase. It’s in the uniform code of military justice. Senior commanders know it by heart—it’s article 34 of the UCMJ. Maintaining good order and discipline, and enforcing it, is at the heart of what the Navy is trying to do,” retired Army Colonel Kevin Benson adds. “I admire Admiral Green. He has a problem on his hands and he’s moving to bring it under control. That’s the sign of a good officer. You want to get back to business? Well, that’s getting back to business.”  

The “getting back to business” includes reining in the military’s special warfare units. In August of this year, Green (a 1986 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a 1988 graduate of SEAL Class 149) issued a guidancefor Naval Special Warfare commanders. “Our Force has drifted from our Navy core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment and the tenets of our Naval Special Warfare Ethos due to a lack of action at all levels of Leadership,” Green wrote.

Green, senior military officers told TAC at the time, was acting after a series of incidents involving members of special warfare units that included allegations of alcohol abuse, sexual assault, cocaine use, the mutilation of corpses, the increased use of pain medication, and a general breakdown in discipline among SEAL Team units. 

While special forces units from each of the uniformed services have suffered from similar problems, the Navy’s problems are deeply rooted, as one Pentagon civilian and Navy veteran told me. “This guy [Green] isn’t having any of it,” this officials says. “I mean, this guidance was a megaton blast. It was literally a ‘clean up your act or we’ll clean it up for you,’ message. It hit home.”

For a large number of senior retired military officers, the problems plaguing the special warfare community are viewed as a result of the overuse of the elite units in the years following 9/11—and the dilution of talent in the units as the force has grown.

“You have to make a distinction between tier one and tier two forces,” a senior U.S. Army officer argues. “These guys in SEAL Team 7, these guys in Army Special Forces and these guys you see on television with their beards and tomahawks and their tattoos…they’re what we call ‘white SOF’—white Special Operations Forces. They’re not ‘black SOF.’ There are three units that matter; there’s the Army’s DELTA Force, there’s DEVGRU [SEAL Team 6, which killed Osama bin Laden], and there’s the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron. That’s it. They’re the elite of the elite.”

It is not simply that the Navy’s leaders want to exercise their traditional prerogatives; it is that they are in the midst of a campaign to rid the Navy’s special warfare community of the types of warriors embodied by Eddie Gallagher and his Seal Team unit. It is why Richard Spencer has been so adamant in standing up to Donald Trump, and it’s why he was willing to be fired for his views. 

“Good order and discipline” was the phrase Spencer used in the letter he wrote to Trump acknowledging that he was leaving his office. “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” Spencer wrote. “Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and time again.”

Army Col. Keven Benson suggests Trump may have overplayed his hand, considering all the wreckage he wrought playing to his base at the possible cost of his legitimacy among those in uniform. Benson charges, too, that the president’s decision to reverse the directives of senior Navy officers in disciplining one of their own might lose him support not only among senior officers, but among the rank and file—a constituency that voted overwhelmingly to put him in the White House. “You know, these guys, these three knuckleheads —Lorance, Golsteyn and Gallagher —might be welcome on Fox News,” Benson says, “but they wouldn’t be welcome in my platoon.”

Mark Perry is a journalist, author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. His latest book is The Pentagon’s Wars. He tweets @markperrydc.

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