WASHINGTON — President Trump defended the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Monday, suggesting the ouster was a long time coming and was part of an effort to “protect” members of the armed forces.
“We’ve been thinking about that for a long time. That didn’t just happen,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office as he met with the prime minister of Bulgaria. “I have to protect my warfighters.”
Spencer’s forced departure came amid a controversy over Trump’s decision to issue pardons in three cases where service members were accused of war crimes. One of those service members is Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, a member of the elite Navy SEALs, who was accused of murdering an unarmed Iraqi teenager in 2017. Gallagher was ultimately convicted of a lesser charge involving posing with the dead body, but Trump reversed the officer’s demotion earlier this month.
In the wake of the president’s intervention, some Navy officials still sought to discipline Gallagher, including potentially stripping him of the trident pin that signifies SEAL status. On Nov. 21, Trump announced on Twitter that he would not permit the Navy to take Gallagher’s pin.
In public comments, Spencer had indicated he supported a review of Gallagher’s conduct. According to CNN, Spencer was working “behind the scenes” with the White House on a deal that would allow the review to be conducted with the assurance Gallagher would be able to retire as a SEAL. The Pentagon said that effort prompted Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to ask for his resignation because of a “lack of candor.”
On Nov. 24, Spencer sent a letter to Trump acknowledging his termination, while also expressing concerns about what the Gallagher case might do to the military. “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” Spencer wrote.
As he discussed Spencer’s firing, Trump suggested service members had received overly harsh punishments.
“They had one young man in jail for six years. He had many years to go, and a lot of people think he shouldn’t have been there, and I gave him a pardon,” Trump said.
The president appeared to be referring to 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, one of the three service members whose cases he intervened in. Lorance was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2013 for ordering soldiers under his command to repeatedly harass and shoot at civilians in Afghanistan.
With respect to Gallagher, Trump reiterated his position. “‘No, you’re not going to take it away,’” Trump said of what he told the Pentagon. “He was a great fighter ... one of the ultimate fighters.”
Trump did not respond to questions earlier in the day about whether he directed Esper to fire Spencer.
Trump’s critique of Spencer came on the heels of White House attacks against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer who was detailed to the White House National Security Council and testified in the impeachment hearings last week.
Asked if he was concerned the comments about Spencer and Vindman could be seen as “disparaging” members of the armed forces, Trump replied, “No. I think what I’m doing is sticking up for our armed forces and there’s never been a president that’s going to stick up for them and has like I have including the fact that we spent 2.5 trillion on rebuilding our armed forces.”
Trump went on to say that “some very unfair things” have happened in the armed forces. He referenced the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was dishonorably discharged, demoted and fined after being convicted of desertion in 2017, and Chelsea Manning, a former Army soldier, who was convicted in 2013 of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.
President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017 but did not get involved in Bergdahl’s case. Bergdahl was convicted after Obama left office.
“You let Sgt. Bergdahl go, you let others go including a young gentleman — now a person — who President Obama let go who stole tremendous amounts of classified information,” Trump said, referencing Manning, who transitioned to life as a woman while imprisoned.
Trump said it was improper to have service members who deserted or had leaked information receive lesser punishments than people facing war crimes charges for things they had done “as a fighter.”
“We’re not going to do that to our people,” Trump said.
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