Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday offered an explanation for why he ousted his Navy secretary, saying that he was “flabbergasted” to learn that Richard Spencer tried to make a secret deal with the White House in which a Navy SEAL acquitted of murder could retire as a member of the elite force if President Donald Trump stayed out of the case.
The alleged proposal by Spencer, who was ousted by Esper on Sunday, contradicted what he had told Esper and other senior defense officials in recent days: that he was considering resigning if Trump forced the issue, Esper said.
The dismissal adds a new layer upon weeks of chaos stemming from Trump choosing to involve himself in the war-crimes cases of the SEAL and two U.S. soldiers. It also raises questions about how the Army will handle two soldiers whom Trump pardoned on murder charges if the president asserts similar pressure on those cases.
Esper, in his first media appearance since the dismissal, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday that when he met with Army and Navy leaders a few weeks ago to discuss the cases, they all agreed that the Pentagon should rely on the military’s legal system and administrative processes – which advocates for the service members convinced Trump lacked fairness.
That discussion among Esper and other senior leaders at the Pentagon occurred after news emerged early this month that Trump was considering intervening in the cases. He did so on Nov. 15 despite Pentagon recommendations to stay out of them, issuing pardons in the cases of Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn and dismissed 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and reinstating the rank of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, the SEAL.
Golsteyn faced a murder trial next year following allegations that he killed an unarmed man in Afghanistan in 2010, while Lorance was convicted of murder in 2013 and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Gallagher was acquitted in July of murdering an Islamic State prisoner in Iraq in 2017, but convicted of posing with the prisoner’s corpse and demoted.
Esper said he learned on Friday from a senior White House official after meeting with Trump that Spencer offered an alternative option to the White House while Esper was traveling last week in Asia.
Broadly, Esper said, it called for the president staying out of the Gallagher case while a Navy fitness review board convened by Naval Special Warfare Command decided whether it would strip Gallagher of his Trident insignia, effectively ending his association with the SEALs. In exchange, Spencer promised that Gallagher would be able to keep the Trident after the review, Esper said.
Esper declined to name the White House official who revealed Spencer’s proposal, but said that Spencer was “forthright” about it with Esper when questioned him about it after the fact.
“This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to, and contrary to Secretary Spencer’s public position. Chairman Milley and I were completely caught off guard, and realized that it had undermined everything we had been discussing with the president,” Esper said, referring to Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Spencer has not disputed Esper’s characterization of the facts or discussed his termination. In a letter to Trump acknowledging his dismissal, he said he has tried to ensure that legal proceedings were fair.
“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,” Spencer wrote. “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.”
Spencer, speaking Saturday at the Halifax International Security Forum, denied that he had threatened to resign.
The defense secretary said Monday that he cannot reconcile Spencer’s comments, including in his termination letter, with his private promise to ensure that Gallagher would be able to retire as a SEAL.
“This is my issue with trust and confidence,” Esper said. “I and General Milley and others had been acting on good faith and confidence with regard to rules and agreements we set forth. And then to find out that for some manner of time our position was being undermined and that at some point in time somebody in their chain of command might be asked to compromise their integrity and bend the rules? My view has been, let the process play itself out.”
Esper denied that he forced out Spencer before the Navy secretary could resign in protest of Trump intervening in Gallagher’s case.
“I wasn’t calculating a timing thing,” he said. “It was based on the events I just laid out to you.”
Esper said he told Trump on Saturday that he would ask for Spencer’s resignation and that the president supported his decision. On Sunday, Trump directed Esper to allow Gallagher to retire as a SEAL, and Esper said he would do so.
“While I believe strongly in process, the issue should not now be thrown into the laps of a board of senior [enlisted sailors] to sort out,” Esper said. “As professional as they are, no matter what they would decide they would be criticized from many sides, which would further drag this issue on, dividing the institution. I want the SEALs and the Navy to move beyond this now, and get fully focused on their war-fighting mission.”
Esper said the Gallagher case has “dragged on for months, and it has distracted too many.”
“If folks want to criticize anyone about reaching down into the administrative processes, then simply blame me,” he said. “I’m responsible at this point. It’s not where I prefer to be, but I’ll own it.”