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The controversy over Navy Secretary Richard Spencer’s ouster, explained

Trump, the Pentagon, and Spencer himself are offering different stories.

Richard Spencer testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on July 11, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The dramatic ouster of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer this weekend is part of a much bigger crisis: one that involves a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes, competing Pentagon and White House stories, congressional anger, and a president who has waded into one of the most sensitive and politically charged military justice cases in decades.

The end of Spencer’s career is inextricably linked with the trial of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was accused of murdering an ISIS captive, shooting civilians, and threatening those in his charge who gave their superiors information on him during his time in Iraq. He was acquitted by military jury of those charges in July, but the Navy still demoted him after he was found guilty of posing in a photo next to the dead body of the teenage detainee.

President Donald Trump took a keen interest in Gallagher’s case. Nine days ago, he signed an order directing the restoration of the commando’s previous rank. Then on Thursday, the president tweeted that the Navy should stop a review into whether or not to boot Gallagher out of the elite unit, which would lead to the loss of the coveted gold Trident pin.

This situation increased political passions to the point that Tim Parlatore, Gallagher’s lead attorney, and his family received death threats. “The environment around this entire case is different, very different,” he told me. The SEAL’s critics are “not looking at facts of the case, but because President Trump is involved they say ‘we hate you.’ That’s kind of a problem.”

The Navy defied Trump’s pressure, vowing it would continue the disciplinary review despite Trump’s tweeted wishes. Spencer, the Navy’s highest-ranking civilian official, and Rear Adm. Collin Green, the unit’s commander, both reportedly considered resigning if Trump officially intervened in proceedings.

On Saturday evening, Spencer told me and other reporters convened at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada that those reports were false. “I have not threatened to resign,” he said. “If the president requests to the stop the process, the process stops. Good order and discipline is also obeying orders from the president of the United States.”

And then all hell broke news the next day: Spencer was out of a job over his handling of the Gallagher case. But it’s still unclear exactly why: Pentagon leadership says it lost faith in Spencer and that Trump officially ordered that Gallagher should keep his pin; Trump claims he was angry about naval programs along with the Gallagher issue, and the former Navy secretary says he resigned due to his oath to the Constitution.

This may all seem like silly Washington insider-y politics. But this drama has damaged relations between civilian leadership and the military they lead — while, in some experts’ minds, diverting attention away from what’s most important.

“The increasingly political position the military has found itself in are a dangerous distractor from what matters most: protecting and defending America’s interests at home and abroad,” Guy Snodgrass, a retired Navy commander and chief speechwriter for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, told me.

What’s more, there’s an argument to be made Spencer was illegally pushed out since the president didn’t directly fire him.

To help make sense of this confusing story, here’s a guide to the three narratives of Spencer’s ouster — as well as why it matters, and what it might mean for the future of the US military.

The three accounts of Spencer’s ouster, explained

Typically, a high-level official’s removal has a clear story behind it. Either he or she did something bad and a superior pushed them out, or they decided to resign for personal or professional reasons.

But the multiple official stories from the Trump administration don’t mesh with one another, and on their faces the Pentagon and White House accounts don’t make much sense.

The Pentagon says it received an order for Gallagher to keep his pin, and that it lost faith in Spencer

On Sunday night, chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman released a lengthy statement explaining that Spencer would no longer serve as Secretary of the Navy.

“Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper has asked for the resignation of Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer after losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House involving the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher,” Hoffman said.

“Secretary Esper learned that Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House — contrary to Spencer’s public position — to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin.”

“Secretary Esper was never informed by Secretary Spencer of his private proposal,” Hoffman continued. “[G]iven the events of the last few days, Secretary Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his Trident pin.”

The key part there is that Esper says Spencer worked a secret deal, likely with the president, to rig the disciplinary review to allow Gallagher to keep his Trident pin. Keeping Esper out of the loop didn’t sit well with him, per this telling, so he asked Spencer to resign.

The problem is that this narrative doesn’t make much sense. Trump wanted Gallagher to keep his Trident pin, as his tweets indicate. If Spencer was going to give Trump what he and Gallagher wanted, then why would the president want the Navy chief gone?

Esper added a wrinkle to all this on Monday, telling reporters he received an order from Trump for Gallagher keep his pin, and that Spencer told him he might have to resign if asked to implement that directive. But again, if Spencer and Trump already worked out this secret deal, then why would the president need to give that order in the first place?

If you’re sensing that something seems off, you’d be right. It only gets more confusing when you see Spencer’s letter on the whole thing, which led Esper also to tell reporters “I can’t reconcile public statements with private statements with the written word.”

Spencer says he resigned “to support and defend the Constitution”

Roughly an hour after Hoffman’s Sunday statement, Spencer’s letter confirming his termination became public. It contained a scathing message for the president and aimed to clarify why he would no longer serve as the Navy’s boss.

“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” he wrote. “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 in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

That sentiments fits with what Spencer told Reuters on Friday: that the Gallagher review should proceed unimpeded. “I believe the process matters for good order and discipline,” he said. It also somewhat confirms Esper’s account that Trump did, in fact, order that the SEAL be allowed to keep his pin.

There appears to be a broader back story to this situation, though. A source close to Spencer told me that Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, worked to broker a deal that would allow Spencer to keep his job and allow the Gallagher review to move forward, though the source wasn’t sure what the exact deal was.

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius seemingly heard the same on Sunday night. He reports that as of Thursday it seemed that Milley’s back-channel work had paid off. “Missiles back in their silos … for the time being,” a Pentagon official told Ignatius at the time. But, Ignatius writes, on Saturday the White House wanted to know if Spencer had threatened to resign, despite his denials.

The next day, Esper delivered the bad news to Spencer, per Ignatius: “The president wants you to go.”

If that’s the case, then Spencer’s resignation may have had more to do with Trump’s desires than his own stance.

But if Spencer did broker that secret deal with Trump — as the Pentagon claims — why would the president want him gone, then? It’s possible Trump pushed Spencer out solely for defying him openly and not just because of his original stance on the Gallagher review.

And, of course, Trump muddied the waters up even further soon after the letter’s release.

Trump says Esper “terminated” Spencer

Trump put out his own Twitter statement Sunday night to explain why Spencer would no longer be his Navy secretary.

There are two things to note from this. First, Trump added his displeasure with Spencer’s handling of the Navy to why the secretary should be dismissed. That’s somewhat understandable. For example, in January Spencer told Trump he would ensure broken elevators on USS Ford aircraft carrier would soon be ready before deployment — or else.

“I shook his hand and said, the elevators will be ready to go when she pulls out or you can fire me,” he told a Washington audience at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “We’re going to get it done. I know I’m going to get it done. I haven’t been fired yet by anyone; being fired by the president really isn’t on the top of my list.” However, the $13 billion vessel isn’t ready for combat yet.

Second, and most importantly, Trump said that Esper “terminated” Spencer — a clear implication that the defense secretary removed the Navy boss. If the president didn’t directly fire Spencer, then his ouster may be an illegal one. Steve Vladeck, a national security law expert at the University of Texas at Austin, noted Sunday on Twitter that the Navy secretary can only be fired by the person who appointed him: the president. Other experts I spoke with agreed.

Parlatore, Gallagher’s lawyer, told me he applauds Trump’s actions in defending his client anyway. “The president has an obligation to step in — he’s the commander in chief,” he said. “If his subordinates aren’t taking care of business, he has an obligation to step in.”

He continued, “I’d hope anybody sitting in the Oval Office would pick up the phone and do something about it.”

The fight over Spencer will continue

For many, the Gallagher matter is now over. The SEAL released a statement on Sunday thanking Trump for showing “true moral fiber by correcting all the wrongs that were being done to me.” The next day, Joint Chiefs chair Milley told reporters the struggle over Gallagher’s Trident pin is “case closed” and Esper said he wants the Navy and SEALs to “move beyond this now.”

But others, mainly Democrats, want to know exactly why Spencer is now out of the administration — which could prolong the amount of time this issue remains a thorn in the administration’s side.

Sen. Tim Kaine — a Democrat from Virginia, which is home to the largest naval complex in the world — released a Monday statement calling for a probe into Spencer’s ouster. “We have many unanswered questions about Secretary Spencer’s departure,” he said. “The Senate Armed Services Committee must fully investigate what happened to ensure accountability.”

Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD), the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee and a former judge advocate general in the US Army, said Monday that Trump “subverted our military justice system and undercut all those who serve our country while upholding its values.”

Republicans, though, appear to be standing by the administration’s decision. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the SASC chair, had no qualms about Spencer’s removal, “Both Secretary Esper and President Trump deserve to have a leadership team who has their trust and confidence.”

Which means the controversy surrounding Spencer’s ouster will likely continue well into the future as Democrats and Republicans debate the circumstances. It’s therefore likely that more information will come out about what really happened to the former navy secretary — and just precisely what role Trump may have played in all of it.

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