The White House’s top national security expert on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s decision to override Navy punishment for controversial Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher earlier this year, calling it “a case that deserved clemency.”
The comments from National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on ABC’s This Week came just days after the New York Times made public graphic and emotional testimony from several of Special Warfare Operator Chief Gallagher’s fellow sailors, describing him as a disturbed and “evil” individual.
O’Brien largely dismissed those comments.
“That's a selective group of SEALs,” he said. “There were also many, many SEALs and many folks in the special warfare community that support Chief Gallagher, that appealed to the president and asked him for this clemency.
“The president takes a look at the situation and he does what he thinks is in the best interest of the country.”
Gallagher, a 40-year-old sailor with eight combat deployments overseas, was accused but acquitted of murder connected to the death of an Islamic State prisoner in May 2017. But Gallagher was found guilty of posing with the corpse for pictures, a crime for which Navy officials moved to demote him and kick him out of the special forces community.
In November, Trump, who had been critical of the Navy’s handling of the case in the past, announced clemency for that crime, directing Navy officials to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to return to the SEALs. The move ultimately lead to the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, and Gallagher’s retirement at the higher rank.
In recent days, Trump has met with Gallagher and his wife and suggested he may invite the controversial former warfighter on the campaign trail.
O’Brien said Sunday that the Navy’s legal case against Gallagher was full of flaws, including “how the prosecutors conducted that trial (and) conducted the pretrial portion of those proceedings.”
But when pressed to respond to the comments from Gallagher’s fellow SEALs describing him as an unstable and possibly homicidal individual, the national security adviser said the focus should be on Gallagher’s exemplary service.
“It's very troubling that we send folks out that have to make split-second decisions dealing with terrorists, dealing with bomb-makers, in very, very, difficult decisions overseas,” he said. “What the president has said is we're going to stand behind our warriors. We're going to have their backs.”
Gallagher’s clemency accompanied similar actions by Trump for two other controversial military figures: Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, previously convicted of second degree murder in the death of two Afghans but released from prison by the president; and Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime but saw that prosecution ended.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.