President Donald Trump speaks during a July 2019 Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Right, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Richard Spencer.

President Donald Trump speaks during a July 2019 Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Right, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Richard Spencer. AP / Alex Brandon

How Trump Turned the Military Against Itself

The president’s repeated interference in a Navy SEAL’s case shows that he cares about only one kind of military discipline: obedience to Trump.

A Navy SEAL accused of war crimes first pitted the president against the Defense Department. Then he divided the Defense Department against itself. The irony is that even the official who tried to please Donald Trump found that was no guarantee he could keep his job.

Trump repeatedly tried to intervene in the case of Eddie Gallagher, a decorated special operator accused of war crimes. Defense officials tried to get him to back off and let the military handle it. Then Trump gave an order, and that’s where they split.

Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, followed that order. Richard Spencer, who until yesterday was the secretary of the Navy, by his account refused and was fired. In a letter made public after his firing, Spencer suggested that under a president who disdains the rule of law, the only true honor is in insubordination.

“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” Spencer wrote as he acknowledged his termination. “Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me.”

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The letter echoed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s resignation missive, in which he declared that the president deserved a Pentagon chief whose views better aligned with his own. But, in one sense, it was even harsher, because Mattis resigned over a policy difference—namely, Trump’s attempted withdrawal from Syria and his disregard for alliances. Spencer, after being fired, suggested that his disagreement with Trump concerned the rule of law itself, and that the president had little use for his insistence on good order and discipline.

Esper, meanwhile, evinced no such qualms in public, though he had reportedly pushed the president not to intervene in Gallagher’s case. Briefing reporters at the Pentagon today, he explained that the president “gave me an order.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, too, separately indicated that settled the matter. “Case closed,” he said to reporters accompanying him on a Middle East trip.

The Defense Department furthermore suggested that Spencer himself wasn’t behaving in quite as principled a manner as he claimed. In a statement last night, the Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said Spencer was being fired over “lack of candor”—that Spencer had gone to the White House behind Esper’s back to, in effect, fix the results of the Navy’s disciplinary process: Gallagher would be allowed to keep his rank and his Trident pin, symbolizing his elite status as a member of the SEALs, so long as the president let the proceedings play out. (Reports yesterday, before Spencer’s firing, indicated that’s exactly what was set to happen: The White House had reportedly told the Navy that its disciplinary review could go ahead without interference.)

Spencer has yet to deny this version of events publicly, though a Washington Post story attributed to unnamed sources painted a more sympathetic picture of a Navy secretary simply trying to find a face-saving compromise for all sides. It almost worked, too. For one thing, Gallagher’s lawyer told the Navy Times, before Spencer’s firing yesterday, that his client didn’t even want the Trident pin anymore; he believed he was becoming too much of a “lightning rod.”

But if in fact Spencer was negotiating with the White House to let Gallagher keep his rank and his pin—in essence, to find a way to follow Trump’s order—why later state he couldn’t follow such an order in good conscience? And if he felt that strongly, why say publicly, as he did before his firing, that he hadn’t threatened to resign over the issue and that he served at the pleasure of the president?

For his part, Esper characterized the firing as less a policy matter than a bureaucratic one. “Contrary to the narrative put forward in the media,” he told reporters today, “this dismissal is not about Eddie Gallagher. It’s about Secretary Spencer in the chain of command.” In one way, if it were about Eddie Gallagher, the firing would also make no sense: Esper would be firing Spencer for conspiring to follow an order that Esper himself intended to follow.

“While the various narratives are both head-spinning and contradictory, the senior military leadership is surely having some profoundly difficult yet simultaneously crucial discussions on how to ensure the military justice system will not be perverted,” Mara Karlin, a former defense official who is now director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me in an email.

Caitlin Talmadge, an associate professor at Georgetown specializing in defense policy, wrote on Twitter, “Differing stories from Trump, Esper, and Spencer on the resignation aren’t important on their own but do reflect lack of well coordinated & institutionalized White House-DOD decision-making processes, which has all sorts of actual bad policy consequences.”

In a larger sense, though, it is very much about Eddie Gallagher, and in particular what Gallagher’s case says about Trump’s relationship with his military. Gallagher stood accused of killing civilians in cold blood and posing with an Islamic State fighter’s corpse; a military jury convicted him only of the second crime and demoted him. But Trump this month offered leniency to Gallagher, as well as two Army officers accused of war crimes, over the objections of critics within and outside the military, who said the moves would undermine military discipline.

But there is more than one kind of military discipline. Trump has made clear since his campaign—when he floated killing the family members of ISIS and bringing back torture—that he has little use for the laws of war, for treating battlefield enemies with the kind of respect they’d never extend to American soldiers. For him, military discipline simply means “obedience to Trump.”

Esper said at his confirmation hearing that he would “absolutely” consider resignation if asked to execute an order that ran counter to his values and principles. He hasn’t come across such an order yet, apparently, but it’s not clear what resignation would achieve anyway. Mattis resigned over the Syria withdrawal, which is going slowly but still in effect. Spencer was fired and protested, but Gallagher gets to keep his rank and his pin. Donald Trump is the president, and he gets to make the orders; no matter who resigns or protests, someone will be willing to follow them.