New drama in the story of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher came to a head this weekend. It began Saturday, with a report from The New York Times claiming that Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer threatened to resign over the president’s involvement. Will he, won’t he – did he even make the threat at all? In the end, it didn’t matter. The whole affair wrapped up Sunday evening with Defense Secretary Mark Esper giving Spencer the boot and – just a few hours later – President Trump announcing his nomination for replacement: Admiral Kenneth Braithwaite, the current U.S. ambassador to Norway.
It’s a twisting tale with many a switchback – and it isn’t over yet.
The Decorated Warfighter
For those who haven’t been following the story – or who need a refresher: Edward R. Gallagher, 40, grew up in Indiana and joined the Navy in 1999. He served as a corpsman attached to the Marines, eventually became a SEAL, and was promoted to chief in 2015. Gallagher has been recognized for valor several times and has been awarded, amongst other things, two Bronze Stars. He went on eight overseas deployments in two decades of service in the NAVY and has fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Eddie is called the humble hero of the family by his brother, Sean, and he has received positive evaluations from his superiors within the SEALs and served as an instructor for the BUD/S program for recruits.
The Disgraced War Criminal?
Despite many commendations and positive evaluations, Gallagher has earned a reputation as a man who fights terrorists – but doesn’t care much about following the rules. He has seen his share of controversy and even investigation throughout his career, if few formal reprimands.
Gallagher was the subject of an investigation into the shooting of a young girl in Afghanistan in 2010 but was cleared of any wrong. He was later accused of attempting to run over a Navy police officer after being detained in a 2014 traffic stop. But the investigation that almost cost Eddie Gallagher his career – and still could – involves his alleged behavior during his eighth deployment, in 2017. It is for this investigation that most Americans know his name.
The allegations include murdering a helpless prisoner of war, shooting at civilians, taking unnecessary shots as a sniper and boasting about the number of his kills, and posing with the corpse of a terrorist in a photo that is, essentially, the same sort of trophy shot many hunters take with their fresh kills – but with a human, not a deer or turkey. According to the original Navy prosecutor, Chris Czaplak, “Chief Gallagher decided to act like the monster the terrorists accuse us of being. He handed ISIS propaganda manna from heaven. His actions are everything ISIS says we are.”
Despite additional allegations that Gallagher threatened to kill witnesses and ruin the careers of any SEALs who dare report him, several of his fellow soldiers have done exactly that.
The Poorly Handled Case
To say the case against Gallagher was handled poorly might be a tad generous. His legal team managed to paint the younger soldiers who witnessed against him as a handful of disgruntled, young, and entitled SEALs who don’t represent the special operations community in general. One of the prosecution witnesses, in a surprising trial twist, claimed to have actually been the one to kill the teenage prisoner of war. He called it an act of mercy after Gallagher stabbed the young man – despite the fact that Gallagher was charged with the murder.
Additionally, the defense team’s efforts to portray the investigation as a targeted attack on the veteran soldier and a violation of his rights was made much easier when it was discovered that the prosecution had lied to the judge and spied on the defense team and a member of the press by sending emails using spy software. The judge actually delayed the trial to investigate the alleged spying – and the prosecutor confessed in court!
Gallagher was ultimately acquitted of all charges save posing with a slain enemy after his trial this past summer. While Chief Gallagher was only found guilty of one charge – the least severe one – the jury decided to give him the maximum penalty for that charge. He was sentenced to four months imprisonment and demoted from chief petty officer to petty officer first class.
The Presidential Intervention
President Trump restored Chief Gallagher’s rank and explained that the case had been handled very poorly and that the soldier deserved to be allowed to retire at his full rank. When the Navy began to discuss whether to allow Gallagher to remain a SEAL or to strip him of the coveted Trident pin, the president, as is his wont, took to Twitter to share his displeasure:
The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 21, 2019
The Resignation Threat – or Non-Threat?
The New York Times reported Saturday that Pentagon officials were relying on the assumption that the tweet does not constitute a formal presidential order, so much as simply Trump’s personal opinion. They also alleged that Navy secretary Richard Spencer and Rear Admiral Collin Green both threatened to resign should the president officially order the Navy to stop the proceedings.
But both Green and Spencer denied making any such threats. “Contrary to popular belief, I am still here,” Spencer said at a security conference in Nova Scotia. “I did not threaten to resign. But let us just say we are here to talk about external threats, and Eddie Gallagher is not one of them.”
“If the president requests to stop the process, the process stops,” Spencer also said. He explained during an interview with Reuters on Friday that he did want the Navy to examine whether they should take Gallagher’s Trident pin for the sake of “good order and discipline,” but also said that “Good order and discipline is also obeying orders from the president of the United States.”
The Consequences Paid
Whether Spencer threatened to quit or not doesn’t much matter now, however. Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked for his resignation on Sunday. Esper explained that Spencer approached White House officials with a promise to allow Gallagher to retire as a SEAL – so long as the president stayed out of it.
“Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position,” Esper told reporters.
Spenser handed in his resignation later that day and said that he could not “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.” Within hours, Trump had tweeted a confirmation that Spencer was indeed removed for his handling of the Gallagher case and simultaneously announced his ideal replacement: the current ambassador to Norway, Admiral Kenneth Braithwaite.
The Story Continues …
Sunday’s ouster, however, does not conclude this tale. The White House informed the Navy Sunday that they would not be interfering in the Gallagher review. It’s entirely possible that Gallagher – and three officers who oversaw him on this last deployment – could have their Trident pins revoked. Losing their pins doesn’t mean they can’t remain in the Navy, but it does mean they’re no longer SEALs. Gallagher feels the review is a direct reaction to Trump restoring his rank. “They could have taken my Trident at any time they wanted,” he said on Fox & Friends. “Now they’re trying to take it after the president restored my rank.” If he can survive this review rank intact, Gallagher plans to retire November 30.
Read more from James Fite.