There was a point over the weekend in which it appeared the dispute between Donald Trump and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer would be resolved. By last night, however, the detente ended and Spencer was ousted from his post.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired Sunday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who ordered that a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder be allowed to remain in the elite commando corps, the Defense Department said.
Esper asked for Spencer’s resignation after President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday that Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher would retain the gold Trident insignia signifying his status as a member of the Sea, Air, and Land Teams, or SEALs. Spencer told reporters on Friday that he believed the review process over Gallagher’s status should go forward.
Following up on our earlier coverage, there’s little doubt that the Gallagher controversy was responsible for driving a wedge between the White House and the Navy secretary. Gallagher was accused of murder and war crimes, but he was ultimately convicted of a lesser charge. He was dropped in rank, though Trump intervened and promoted Gallagher.
Spencer, eager to instill a sense of discipline and respect for law and order, moved forward to strip Gallagher of his gold eagle Trident emblem, so that he would no longer be a Navy SEAL. Trump published a tweet last week announcing he was prepared to override the Navy’s judgment on this, too.
This, naturally, intensified the dispute, and by some accounts, led Spencer to threaten to resign over the president’s interference. According to the New York Times, the Navy secretary’s threat “provoked Mr. Trump’s ire.”
For his part, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was reportedly bothered with the fact that Spencer tried to diffuse the situation by negotiating a deal directly with the White House – circumventing him – that would’ve allowed Gallagher to retire as a Navy SEAL.
Trump soon after weighed in with tweets suggesting Spencer’s ouster had something to do with “large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures,” which the president said “were not addressed to my satisfaction.”
While the competing versions and explanations have the effect of making a messy situation messier, Spencer’s written statement on his way out the door shouldn’t go overlooked.
Mr. Spencer’s resignation letter, dated Sunday, said he regarded good order and discipline throughout the Navy’s ranks to be “deadly serious business.”
“The lives of our sailors, Marines and civilian teammates quite literally depend on the professional execution of our many missions, and they also depend on the ongoing faith and support of the people we serve and the allies we serve alongside,” the letter said.
He added: “Unfortunately, it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the commander in chief who appointed me, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took.”
Spencer added, “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and again, from Captain Lawrence’s famous order ‘Don’t Give up the Ship,’ to the discipline and determination that propelled our flag to the highest point on Iwo Jima. The Constitution, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, are the shields that set us apart, and the beacons that protect us all.”
The unstated implication was that the president seems to disagree with Spencer’s assessment about the value of the rule of law. As Bloomberg Opinion’s Jonathan Bernstein noted last week, “One problem here is that Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that the U.S. military actually values its own rules.”
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius – who, incidentally, is the son of a former Navy secretary – added in his new column, “With Spencer’s firing, Trump has recklessly crossed a line he had generally observed before, which had exempted the military from his belligerent, government-by-tweet interference. But the Gallagher case illustrates how an irascible, vengeful commander in chief is ready to override traditional limits to aid political allies in foreign policy, law enforcement and now military matters.”