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SEAL Case Triggers Power Struggle Between Navy, President Trump


President Trump and the Pentagon have forced the Navy secretary, Richard V. Spencer, out of his job. Spencer's forced resignation centers around the controversy of one Navy SEAL named Edward Gallagher. He was accused of war crimes, and his case triggered this power struggle between the Navy and President Trump. Here's some context - Gallagher was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter back in 2017. As a result of this, he was demoted in rank. But Trump intervened and ordered Gallagher's rank be restored earlier this month. And the president stepped in again when he learned the Navy was planning to expel Gallagher from the Navy SEALs.

The Pentagon accuses Spencer of violating the chain of command by trying to negotiate directly with the White House. And yesterday, the secretary of defense fired him. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, has been following the story and joins us now. So it's kind of confusing here, Tom. So can you just lay out what we know? What is the Pentagon's rationale for pushing the secretary of the Navy out?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, it is very confusing, Rachel. And the stated reason by Secretary Esper, the defense secretary, is that Spencer violated the chain of command by not keeping him informed about what he was doing. But what we know is that all senior officials, including Defense Secretary Esper, didn't want President Trump to get involved and short-circuit these disciplinary cases. They wanted them to play out and worried that justice would not be done. And some of - folks I talk with privately say the president siding with these accused of wrongdoing sends the wrong message to the entire military.

MARTIN: So we should just clarify - even though the courts had rendered their decision, the Navy itself was conducting this internal disciplinary review. And this is something that the secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, wanted and President Trump didn't - is that right?

BOWMAN: That's right.

MARTIN: So why is that so important? Let's talk about that. Why did the Navy, in the form of Richard Spencer, feel so strongly that this proceeding should go through with Gallagher?

BOWMAN: Well, officials I spoke with are concerned about the Gallagher case because he was a senior SEAL that day, and he allowed more junior SEALs to have their pictures taken with a dead ISIS fighter. He sent the wrong message to the troops about good order and discipline, and he never apologized. And the overall command of the special operators - including SEALS, Green Berets and others - are concerned about not only the Gallagher case, but the other high-profile cases. And they're wondering, what's going on in the community? Maybe the standards are being relaxed or ignored after 18 years of war and many, many deployments. So an advisory board of special operators is looking into this and will report in the coming months. So again, there's worry not only with the Gallagher case, but other cases as well.

MARTIN: I want to read a little bit from the resignation letter from the secretary. He says, the rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny. He goes on to say, unfortunately, it's become apparent, in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the commander in chief. I mean, what's the response like from people inside the military? Do people support Spencer? Did they support the secretary of defense?

BOWMAN: Well, privately, some people I talk with are supporting Spencer. And they're worried, again, about President Trump getting involved in these cases of wrongdoing before the process plays itself out. And they're worried about, again, the message this sends to the troops - that wrongdoing is OK. They're worried about the message it sends to allies. And they're worried about the message this sends to countries where the U.S. military is operating. Can you basically come in here and shoot at unarmed civilians? And they're worried about it.

MARTIN: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom. We appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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