Esper says he fired Spencer after learning of 'secret proposal' from White House official

By Tony Bertuca / November 25, 2019 at 1:05 PM

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today he asked for the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer after being told by a senior White House official that Spencer had a made a "secret proposal" to President Trump concerning how he would handle the case of a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes.

Esper told reporters at the Pentagon the White House official, whom he declined to name, told him Friday of a deal Spencer was trying to strike with Trump, whereby the Navy secretary would personally ensure that Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher would be restored to rank and retain his Trident insignia in retirement as long as the president did not intervene with a Navy review board set to decide the matter.

"I lost trust and confidence when I found that this secret proposal was happening," Esper said.

The story, however, is at odds with statements Spencer has made.

Esper said Spencer on Thursday privately "indicated he was probably going to resign" if Trump intervened in Gallagher's case. Gallagher was acquitted of murder charges in July, but convicted of posting with the corpse of an Islamic State prisoner.

Spencer, however, over the weekend denied media reports that he was threatening to resign over the matter.

"I had every reason to believe that he was going to resign, that it was a threat to resign," Esper said today.

But in a Sunday letter acknowledging his termination by Esper, Spencer said he could not "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."

Esper said senior DOD leaders had agreed in private to "let the process play out" in terms of Gallagher's review and went to advise the White House of their position, while recognizing that Trump has the constitutional authority to override their recommendations.

That's why Esper said he was "flabbergasted" when he learned of Spencer’s private proposal to the president.

"I cannot reconcile the personal statements, with the public statements with the written word," Esper said. "And that's why I lost trust and confidence."

Meanwhile, Esper said Trump on Sunday ordered him to circumvent the Navy review board anyway and allow Gallagher to retire with restored rank and his Trident.

"I can control what I can control," Esper said. "I'm the secretary of defense responsible for the department. My view is we will follow our processes. That is what we agreed to."

But Esper said he recognizes the president's authority supersedes his. He also said the case -- now a matter of considerable public attention and political angst -- should not be "thrown in the laps" of a Navy review board.

"If folks want to criticize anyone at this point about reaching down into the administrative processes, then simply blame me," he said. "I'm responsible at this point, it's not where I'd prefer to be, but I'll own it."

When asked what message U.S. troops should take away from the situation now that Gallagher's case will not go before a Navy review board, Esper said: "That the president is the commander-in-chief."