Trump ordered Pentagon to let convicted Navy SEAL keep elite status

WASHINGTON, Nov 25 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to let a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct keep his Trident pin designating him as a member of the elite force, instead of holding a review board, his defense secretary said on Monday.

The disclosure by Mark Esper illustrates how Trump intervened repeatedly in the case of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted by a military jury of murdering a captured Islamic State fighter in Iraq, but convicted of posing with the detainee's corpse.

After restoring Gallagher's rank on Nov. 15, Trump on Sunday gave a formal order to halt the military's plans to hold a review board, Esper said.

"I spoke with the President on Sunday. He gave me the order that Eddie Gallagher will retain his Trident pin," Esper told reporters at the Pentagon, referring to Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher.

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Trial of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher
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Trial of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher
FILE - In this Thursday, May 30, 2019, file photo, Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher leaves a military courtroom on Naval Base San Diego with his wife, Andrea Gallagher, in San Diego. Edward Gallagher, who has been charged with allegedly killing an Islamic State prisoner in his care and attempted murder for the shootings of two Iraq civilians in 2017, is scheduled to go on trial Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Julie Watson, File)
Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, right, walks with his wife, Andrea Gallagher as they arrive to military court on Naval Base San Diego, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in San Diego. Jury selection continued Tuesday morning in the court-martial of the decorated Navy SEAL, who is accused of stabbing to death a wounded teenage Islamic State prisoner and wounding two civilians in Iraq in 2017. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder, charges that carry a potential life sentence. (AP Photo/Julie Watson)
Edward Gallagher, a US Navy Special Operations Chief facing murder trial in the death of an Islamic State prisoner, leaves a military courtroom on Naval Base San Diego after a military judge cited interference by prosecutors, graphic element on gray
Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, left, hugs his wife, Andrea Gallagher, after leaving a military courtroom on Naval Base San Diego, Thursday, May 30, 2019, in San Diego. The decorated Navy SEAL facing a murder trial in the death of an Islamic State prisoner was freed Thursday from custody after a military judge cited interference by prosecutors. (AP Photo/Julie Watson)
U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher's defense attorney Tim Parlatore speaks to the media after opening arguments in the soldier's court-martial trial at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, California , U.S., June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher leaves court with his wife Andrea, her name tattooed on his wrist, after the first day of jury selection at this court-martial trial at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, California , U.S., June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. army member King Cohn arrives at court to support U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher during the first day of jury selection at the court-martial trial at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, California , U.S., June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The entrance to the courthouse at Naval Base San Diego is shown where jury selection begins in the court-martial trial of U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher in San Diego, California , U.S., June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Defence attorney Timothy Parlatore, representing US Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, speaks with reporters at a pre-trial hearing for Gallagher's court martial for alleged war crimes in Iraq, in San Diego, California, U.S., May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton
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Esper said he had been in favor of following the regular processes but stressed that, as president, Trump had "every right, authority and privilege to do what he wants to do."

His comments were Esper's first since after he fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Sunday over his handling of Gallagher case.

Esper gave new detail about why he fired Spencer, saying the Navy chief had sought to cut a side deal with the White House that was "contrary to what we had agreed to and contrary to Secretary Spencer's public position" -- in which he appeared to favor allowing the military justice process to go ahead.

"We learned that several days prior, Secretary Spencer had proposed a deal whereby if the President allowed the Navy to handle the case, he would guarantee that Eddie Gallagher would be restored to rank, allowed to retain his Trident and permitted to retire," Esper said.

Esper said he asked for Spencer's resignation letter on Sunday.

Spencer's letter, seen by Reuters, took parting shots at Trump and defended the need to preserve "good order and discipline throughout the ranks" -- something Navy officials had believed the peer review board would help ensure.

"The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries," Spencer wrote.

"Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me."

The top U.S. general said on Monday that as far as he was concerned the Gallagher case was now closed.

"As far as I'm concerned, it is case closed now and it is time to move on and address the national security of the United States," Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a small group of reporters during a trip to the Middle East.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Manama Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

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