After losing the trust and confidence of the Secretary of Defense, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer was asked Sunday to tender his resignation and exit the Pentagon.
In a prepared statement emailed to Navy Times, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper became concerned about Spencer’s “lack of candor over conversations with the White House involving the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher,” an inside deal Spencer allegedly concocted with President Donald J. Trump.
Esper has asked Trump to consider Kenneth Braithwaite, the current U.S. ambassador to Norway and a retired Navy rear admiral, as the 77th Secretary of the Navy.
According to Hoffman, Esper and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with Trump on Friday about what had become a pivotal moment in the history of traditional civil-military relations.
The president had tweeted he would shield Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher from what was widely perceived to be a punitive Trident Review Board set up by Rear Adm. Collin Green, the commander of Naval Special Warfare.
At issue was whether Green’s chosen panel could strip Gallagher of his coveted SEAL trident nearly five months after he was convicted at a July court-martial trial of posing in a photograph near a dead Islamic State prisoner of war.
Trump had intervened multiple times in Gallagher’s case, including restoring his chief’s anchors after he had been demoted to petty officer first class following his conviction.
Hoffman disclosed Sunday that Spencer was saying one thing in public about supporting Green’s pitch to let the process play out — a policy favored by Esper — but in reality he’d previously proposed to Trump to restore Gallagher’s pay grade and allow him to retire with his trident pin.
“When recently asked by Secretary Esper, Secretary Spencer confirmed that despite multiple conversations on the Gallagher matter, Secretary Esper was never informed by Secretary Spencer of his private proposal,” Hoffman said.
After all the drama of the past week, Esper now has decided to let Gallagher keep his trident.
He’ll meet with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday and Navy Under Secretary Thomas Modly — now the acting secretary — to figure out how to move forward.
“I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official.” said Secretary Esper in the statement. “Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well.”
It’s unclear if Esper will halt similar proceedings against three officers tied to the Gallagher case.
Spencer’s spokesperson, Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, told Navy Times that Spencer would not be making a statement at this time on the latest revelations.
However, a letter of resignation dated Sunday and purported to have been signed by Spencer and distributed by CNN and other outlets tells a different story than the one pushed by the Pentagon.
Calling the need to preserve good order and discipline a “deadly serious business,” the letter indicates that Spencer had come to believe Trump didn’t share his perspective.
“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,” the letter states.
Only moments after the release of Spencer’s resignation letter, however, Trump took to Twitter to give another version of the Sunday meltdown.
Noting his displeasure with the Navy’s handling of the Gallagher affair, Trump added his concerns about Spencer’s failure to address cost overruns and contracting problems from the former administration and then said that’s why Esper “terminated” his employment.
He thanked Spencer for his service and commitment but promised Gallagher “will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned.”
The president added that he would nominate Braithwaite as the next Navy secretary.
“A man of great achievement and success, I know Ken will do an outstanding job!” Trump tweeted.
Plot twist: What none of the parties knew was that minutes before the Pentagon announced Esper’s decision, Gallagher told his attorney, Timothy Parlatore, that he had decided to voluntarily relinquish his trident for the good of the SEALs, the president and the country, believing that he unwittingly had become a lightning rod for criticism and partisan division.
Shortly after Gallagher told Parlatore to write the letter, his attorney received word that Esper had decided to let him retain the pin.
In fact, Navy Times had to scrap a story about the letter when the Pentagon statement arrived.
“This isn’t a twist any of us saw coming,” Parlatore told Navy Times. "From the beginning, my primary responsibility was to save Eddie Gallagher’s life, then to save his reputation, but Eddie Gallagher loves the Navy and he loves the SEAL teams. He’s been falsely accused of attacking the institution, but it’s an institution we both love and want to improve.
“With this personnel change, this institution will improve and no one will go through the ordeal Eddie went through. At the end of the day, the most important duty any of us have is protecting America.”
Parlatore added, “This case is completely bananas.”
Although Gallagher was accused of a string of war crimes tied to a 2017 deployment with Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7 — including the murder of a wounded Islamic State prisoner of war — a court-martial panel of his peers in July acquitted him of every charge except the one that the he never denied, posing next to a dead detainee alongside a dozen other service members who were never charged with any crimes.
Had the offense not appeared at a general court-martial trial, it likely would’ve been handled administratively, perhaps with little more than a verbal reprimand before Gallagher retired after two decades of service.
Instead, it was the legal flotsam left after the military jury washed away what was left of the Navy’s failed case against him.
Before Gallagher’s court-martial trial even kicked off, Navy judge Capt. Aaron Rugh sanctioned the prosecution for repeatedly violating Gallagher’s constitutional rights.
Part of Rugh’s punishment included booting Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, the lead prosecutor, for his role in a warrantless surveillance program cooked up with Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents to track emails sent by defense attorneys and also to Navy Times.
They were accused of manipulating witness statements to NCIS agents; using immunity grants and a bogus “target letter” in a crude attempt to keep potential pro-Gallagher witnesses from testifying; illegally leaking documents to the media to taint the military jury pool; and then trying to cover it all up when they got caught.
In the end, the jurors recommended that Gallagher be demoted to petty officer first class, a verdict upheld by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday but overturned by Trump.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.