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Defense Secretary Esper Confirms Trump Directly Ordered Him Not To Remove Navy SEAL

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At no time in living memory have relations between the U.S. military and the White House been so fraught. Senior military leadership wanted to oust a Navy SEAL from that elite service after a high-profile war crimes case. President Trump thought otherwise. He wanted the SEAL, Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, to retain his status. Then came news yesterday of a different ouster, that of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. Today, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed that he received a direct order from President Trump not to remove Gallagher from the SEALs.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to walk through all of this with us. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I understand that you and other reporters spoke with Defense Secretary Mark Esper today. What did he have to say about all this?

BOWMAN: Well, again, the big surprise, again, was he told a press gaggle off camera that the president ordered him to restore Navy SEAL Gallagher's Trident pin. No, Esper didn't mention that over the weekend when he said in a statement that he asked for the resignation of Spencer, that he lost confidence in him, that Spencer went behind his back to the White House in a plan to get Gallagher to keep his pin.

There was supposed to be a Navy review board to determine that, but then Esper said in his statement there would be no review board. And instead, he directed Gallagher to retain his pin without mentioning the president until today. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ESPER: The president is the commander in chief. He has every right, authority and privilege to do what he wants to do.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Order you to basically make sure he has a Trident pin.

ESPER: Absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But what message does that send to the troops - that basically, you're pulling the plug on a review board?

ESPER: The president is the commander in chief.

BOWMAN: Of course, he's right. The president is commander in chief...

CHANG: Sure.

BOWMAN: ...And has wide authority in such matters.

CHANG: And remind us of who this Navy SEAL is at the center of all this, Eddie Gallagher. How did President Trump get involved in his case in particular?

BOWMAN: Well, Gallagher was charged with killing an ISIS teenage prisoner in Iraq in 2017. He was acquitted of that death but convicted of a minor charge of posing with a corpse. He was demoted by the Navy and became something of a celebrity with conservative media and some lawmakers.

That's when Secretary Spencer suggested a compromise to the White House last month. An official close to the case said Gallagher could be retired at his rank with his Trident pin under the plan, and there would be no review board. Then Trump jumped in and wrested control, in the words of an official, and ordered that he be restored to his rank. And then the process began. The Navy ordered the review board for Gallagher's pin, which now will not take place, as Secretary Esper said.

CHANG: Right. Now, Tom, you have covered this beat for years. Have you ever seen anything like this - see a president, who, yes, is the commander in chief, intervene so directly in the military's judicial system and the way the military disciplines officers? Have you seen anything like this?

BOWMAN: No, this is highly unusual. And, of course, presidents - commanders in chief, again, of the armed forces are deeply involved in military affairs. Think of Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. And many of them got involved in pardoning soldiers or granting clemency. But what you have here is a president getting involved at a very low level and barring prosecution of suspected war crimes - in one case, preventing a trial from going forward for Major Matt Golsteyn. He was accused of killing an alleged Afghan bomb-maker. That's unprecedented, but he has the power to do that as commander in chief.

CHANG: And very quickly, do we have any sense within the veteran community of how people are reacting to all of this?

BOWMAN: Well, some Pentagon officials - current ones I talk with are troubled by it. They say it sends the wrong message to troops, saying it erodes good order and discipline. Retired folks feel that way. But Gallagher has his supporters as well, especially among enlisted ranks, saying they've been asked to do a job to fight terrorists in horrible conditions...

CHANG: OK.

BOWMAN: ...Over multiple deployments. They don't want to be second-guessed by senior officers far from the fight.

CHANG: That's NPR's Tom Bowman.

Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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