The secretary of defense is stepping into the commotion over disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, asking for the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer over the matter and directing that Gallagher keep his trident, the Pentagon announced late Sunday night.
Esper lost trust and confidence in Spencer, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said in a statement, "regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House" concerning Gallagher.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Spencer and Rear Adm. Collin Green, the head of Navy special operations, had said they'd resign or be fired rather than comply with an informal directive from President Donald Trump, via tweet, to end efforts to strip Gallagher of his trident pin. Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia Saturday, Spencer categorically denied that he'd threatened to resign.
Gallagher was acquitted in July of stabbing to death an ISIS prisoner of war in Mosul, Iraq, but found guilty of inappropriately taking a photograph with a corpse and demoted to petty officer first class. Earlier this month, Trump moved to grant clemency to two soldiers in war crimes cases and restore Gallagher's rank to chief petty officer.
According to the new statement, Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley met with Trump on Friday over the Gallagher case. Following that meeting, Esper "learned that Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House - contrary to Spencer's public position - to restore Gallagher's rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin," Hoffman said in the Pentagon statement.
Despite that, according to the statement, Spencer never told Esper of this proposal.
"I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official," Esper said in the statement. "Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well."
A spokeswoman for the office of the secretary of the Navy referred all comment to the office of the secretary of defense.
In a resignation letter first published by CNN, Spencer described his departure as the result of a stand on principle.
While the Pentagon's statement alleged Spencer secretly had offered to deal with Trump over Gallagher, Spencer's letter implied he'd refused to follow Trump's order regarding the SEAL in favor of letting justice play out.
"I have strive to ensure our proceedings are fair, transparent and consistent, from the newest recruit to the Flag and General Officer level," 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, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violated 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."
More than an hour after the Pentagon issued its statement, Trump responded in a series of tweets with his own, different perspective on the matter, saying Spencer was "terminated" amid the president's displeasure not only with the handling of the Gallagher trial but with "large cost overruns from past administration's contracting procedures."
This is an apparent reference to Spencer's oversight of the technology on the Gerald R. Ford, the first in the Navy's newest class of carriers. Earlier this year, Spencer testified that he'd made a deal that Trump could fire him if the Ford's weapons elevators weren't fully working by the end of the summer. When that deadline passed without a full complement of working elevators, Spencer said he planned to remain in the job, attributing delays to the shipbuilder.
Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his trident "given the events of the last few days," according to the Pentagon's statement, and plans to meet on Monday with Thomas Modly, former Navy under secretary and now acting secretary, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday.
Esper is proposing that Kenneth Braithwaite, the U.S. Ambassador to Norway and a retired rear admiral in the Navy reserve, be the next secretary of the Navy, according to the statement.
In his tweet series, Trump endorsed the proposal.
"Admiral and now Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite will be nominated by me to be the new Secretary of the Navy," he tweeted. "A man of great achievement and success, I know Ken will do an outstanding job!"
Spencer, a career investment banker and former Marine Corps aviator, became Navy secretary in August 2017.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.