Ousted Navy secretary says Trump's pardons violate his constitutional oath

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Richard V. Spencer was forced out as Navy secretary after Trump overruled the military justice system to pardon a sailor accused of war crimes.

Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, who was ousted over the weekend, said in a departure letter Sunday night that Donald Trump's meddling in internal disciplinary measures against a SEAL accused of war crimes violates their "sacred oath" to "defend the Constitution."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper demanded and received Spencer's resignation on Sunday, after Trump pardoned three service members against the wishes of the military leadership.

"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."

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Spencer parted ways with the administration over Trump's pardon of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was accused of war crimes in Iraq and convicted of posing for photos with a dead teen's body. A military court acquitted Gallagher of murder in July.

Current and former military leaders opposed the pardon, as well as those of two other service members accused of war crimes, noting the move could undermine discipline in the ranks and send a message to other countries that American troops stationed there will not be held accountable for their actions.

In his letter Sunday night, Spencer noted the importance of maintaining "good order and discipline throughout the ranks," adding, "I regard this as deadly serious business."

"The lives of our Sailors, Marines and civilian teammates quite literally depend on the professional execution of our many missions, and they also depend on the ongoing faith and support of the people we serve and the allies we serve alongside," he wrote. "The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries."

Last week, Trump sided with several Fox News hosts, who had urged him to defend the accused service members, over his military advisers, pardoning Gallagher and two others and circumventing the military justice system.

In the aftermath of that decision, naval leaders reportedly sought and received permission to take away Gallagher's Trident pin, the symbol of his elite SEAL rank, effectively demoting him. But before they could do so, Gallagher's lawyer went on Fox News, framed the move as a poke "right in the president's eye," and achieved his desired result — a tweet from Trump announcing he would block any such demotion.

A confusing series of contradictory reports came out over the weekend regarding the events that followed. On Saturday, some outlets reported that the naval leadership planned to ignore Trump's tweet and demote Gallagher anyway and had threatened to resign if Trump meddled again. Spencer denied these reports, claiming, "In no way, shape, or form did I ever threaten to resign."

Then on Sunday, Gallagher went on Fox News to make his case, accusing his superiors of putting "ego and retaliation," ahead of their duty.

"This has nothing to do with good order and discipline. They could have taken my Trident at any time they wanted. Now they’re trying to take it after the president restored my rank," he claimed.

Hours later, Esper announced that he had demanded Spencer's resignation. His statement alleged that Spencer had surreptitiously made a failed attempt to get Trump to stop meddling in exchange for letting Gallagher keep his Trident pin. Esper said he was "deeply troubled by this conduct" and had "determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position."

On Monday, Trump announced that he was "not pleased" with the way the Navy had handled Gallagher's case, nor the "large cost overruns from [the] past administration’s contracting procedures."

"Therefore, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer’s services have been terminated by Secretary of Defense Mark Espe," he tweeted. "I thank Richard for his service & commitment. Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin."

Trump said he planned to nominate current Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite to replace Spencer.

Trump's original pick for Navy secretary, private equity executive Philip Bilden, withdrew from consideration in early 2017 over financial conflict-of-interest concerns. Spencer was Trump's second choice and served for eight days in July as acting Defense secretary while Esper was awaiting Senate confirmation.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.