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Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer Sunday over his handling of the case of a Navy SEAL who posed for a photo next to an Islamic State terrorist’s corpse in Iraq, and the SEAL will be able to keep his Trident pin, a Pentagon spokesman said Sunday.
“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,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement Sunday.
Controversy continued to swirl around whether or not the Navy would strip Gallagher of his Trident pin, ousting him from the prestigious SEALs after he was demoted from chief petty officer to a 1st class petty officer following his conviction in July. President Trump this month restored Gallagher’s rank and ordered that the Navy halt its internal review of Gallagher’s actions from 2017 that resulted in a high-profile war crimes case, for which he was found not guilty of the murder of an Islamic State fighter in Iraq.
Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley spoke to Trump on Friday about Gallagher’s case and Esper learned that Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and let him retire with his Trident pin, the Pentagon said. When Esper recently asked, Spencer confirmed that he’d never informed the defense secretary about his private proposal.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper (center) fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer (right) Sunday over his mishandling of the highly controversial war crimes case involving Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.
“I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official,” Esper said. “Unfortunately, as a result, I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well.”
Esper ordered that Gallagher be allowed to keep his Trident pin. He suggested that Trump appoint Kenneth Braithwaite, the current U.S. ambassador to Norway and a retired Navy rear admiral, to replace Spencer, the Pentagon said.
Multiple Navy officials told Fox News that Spencer had threatened to resign if the military branch was not allowed to go through with the administrative review board on the Gallagher matter. Spencer, speaking at an international security forum in Canada on Saturday, denied that claim and said that he did not consider a tweet by Trump an order and would need a formal order to stop the Navy review board, scheduled to begin Dec. 2.
Spencer’s comments come after Trump tweeted Thursday, “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!”
“I need a formal order to act,” Spencer said of Trump’s tweets, “I don’t interpret them as a formal order.”
The Navy on Wednesday had notified Gallagher that he will face the review board to determine if he should remain on the elite force.
“The president of the United States is the commander in chief. He’s involved in every aspect of government and he can make decisions and give orders as appropriate,” Spencer said.
Gallagher’s lawyers have accused the Navy of trying to remove the SEAL designation in retaliation for Trump’s decision to restore his rank.
Gallagher filed a complaint with the inspector general accusing Rear Adm. Collin Green, the Naval Special Warfare commander, of insubordination for defying Trump’s actions.
Speaking earlier Sunday on “Fox & Friends,” Gallagher repeated his argument that the Navy was acting in retaliation.
“They could have taken my Trident at any time they wanted,” he said. “Now they’re trying to take it after the president restored my rank.”
Gallagher said he wanted to be allowed to retire on Nov. 30 “with all the honors that I’ve earned, get back to my family.”
Green also notified three SEAL officers who oversaw Gallagher during the deployment — Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, Lt. Jacob Portier and Lt. Thomas MacNeil — that they are also being reviewed, according to U.S. officials. Removing their Trident pins means they will no longer be SEALs but could remain in the Navy.
The Navy has revoked 154 Trident pins since 2011.
Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.