Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired Sunday after apparently proposing a secret deal with the White House regarding the fate of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, leading to a loss of “trust and confidence” in the Navy leader among top officials inside the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked for Mr. Spencer’s resignation Sunday afternoon and it was submitted shortly thereafter, though the former Navy chief gave a different account of the reasons.
Thomas Modley, formerly Navy undersecretary, is now acting Navy secretary, though President Trump said later that he would nominate Kenneth Braithwaite, the U.S. ambassador to Norway, to the post on a permanent basis.
The stunning firing of Mr. Spencer capped a whirlwind period over the past four days in which Mr. Trump and the now former Navy secretary publicly clashed over whether Chief Gallagher, who served eight combat tours during his two decades as a Navy SEAL, would be allowed to retain his Trident pin, which symbolizes membership in the elite unit.
Amid the optics of a military service secretary publicly squaring off with the commander in chief, Defense Department officials said they lost faith in Mr. Spencer.
“I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DoD official,” Mr. Esper said Sunday. “Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position.”
Chief Gallagher was demoted earlier this year after a military court convicted him of posing for photographs with the corpse of an Islamic State guerrilla in Iraq in 2017. He was acquitted of murder and other serious charges in the case.
The president two weeks ago restored his rank to chief petty officer, but Mr. Spencer went ahead with plans to launch a peer review process that could have resulted in Chief Gallagher’s loss of his Trident and being formally booted from the SEALs.
Even after Mr. Trump said Thursday that the Navy “will NOT” take the Trident, Navy officials went ahead with plans to begin the peer review next month.
But while Mr. Spencer publicly clashed with the White House over Chief Gallagher’s future, Pentagon officials said the former Navy secretary was holding secret, private talks with the White House.
Such a move would represent a serious violation of the Pentagon’s chain-of-command structure, and officials said Mr. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were unaware of Mr. Spencer’s overtures to the White House.
“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 lengthy statement explaining the motives behind the firing.
“After Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley spoke with the Commander in Chief on Friday regarding the case of Gallagher, Secretary Esper learned that Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House — contrary to Spencer’s public position — to restore Gallagher’s rank 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.”
In a series of tweets Sunday evening, Mr. Trump did not directly address Mr. Spencer’s private talks with the White House but did criticize the Navy’s handling of the Gallagher case. He said his concerns with Mr. Spencer went further.
“I was not pleased with the way that Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s trial was handled by the Navy. He was treated very badly but, despite this, was completely exonerated on all major charges,” the president said. “I then restored Eddie’s rank. Likewise, large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures were not addressed to my satisfaction. Therefore, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer’s services have been terminated by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. I thank Richard for his service & commitment. Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin.”
In his letter of resignation, Mr. Spencer does not reference private talks with the White House. Instead, he suggests that he resigned because he disagreed with Mr. Trump’s directive that the Navy abandon plans to punish Chief Gallagher.
“I have strived to ensure our proceedings are fair, transparent and consistent, from the newest recruit to the Flag and General Office level,” Mr. Spencer said. “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. 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 President deserves and should expect a Secretary of the Navy who is aligned with his vision for the future of our force generation and sustainment,” he added.
Earlier this weekend, Mr. Spencer insisted that at no time did he threaten to resign over the Gallagher affair.
“I would like to further state that in no way, shape, or form did I ever threaten to resign. That has been incorrectly reported in the press. I serve at the pleasure of the President,” he said in a Twitter message.
Until Sunday, Mr. Esper and other top Pentagon officials argued that the Navy’s review process should play out. After the events of the past several days, however, Mr. Esper has now ordered that Chief Gallagher keep his Trident and remain in the SEALs, officials said.
Chief Gallagher is expected to retire at the end of the month.
The details of Mr. Spencer’s proposal to the White House remain unclear, but CNN reported late Sunday that he suggested letting the peer review panel move ahead with a firm guarantee that Chief Gallagher ultimately would remain a SEAL and keep his Trident.
At the same time Mr. Spencer was apparently holding private talks with the White House, he publicly argued that the president’s tweets last week did not spell the end of the Navy review panel.
Mr. Spencer took over as Navy secretary in August 2017. Before coming to the Pentagon, he had spent the better part of the past three decades in the private finance sector.
Mr. Spencer briefly served as acting defense secretary last summer because of an obscure federal staffing law that required Mr. Esper to step down while he underwent Senate confirmation.
⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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