The White House is mired in an arguably unprecedented degree of political controversy, as the president stands accused of, and has admitted to, soliciting a foreign power to interfere in the upcoming US presidential election. Amidst this controversy, however, another major scandal has developed as a result of Trump’s decision to restore the rank of a military official who has been accused of war crimes, which has introduced chaos into military judicial proceedings and, by some accounts, threatened to upend standards of justice and decorum among members of the armed services.
While the world of political news has been consumed by the developments of Congress’ ongoing impeachment inquiry, this separate White House controversy occurring simultaneously deserves attention as well, as concerns have emerged surrounding the president’s role in interfering with and potentially undermining long-standing institutions of justice. The story largely surrounds Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who was accused of multiple crimes in connection with the death of a 12-year-old ISIS prisoner, including premeditated murder. In a military trial that took place in July, Gallagher was acquitted of almost all of the charges, except for the charge of posing for a photograph with the prisoner, whom he stabbed to death, and sharing the picture with others. The jury decided to reduce Gallagher’s rank from E7 to E6, decreasing his pension, and sentenced him to four months confinement, which he already served while in custody.
“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath that I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” — Richard Spencer
This would have been the end of the matter if it were not for the president’s intervention. The story of Gallagher’s trial was picked up by Fox News, which conducted an interview with the acquitted Navy Seal, portraying his case in a sympathetic manner. As the president gets much of his information about US politics from Fox News, he was motivated by the news organization’s coverage of the story to use the executive powers of his office to restore Gallagher’s rank, effectively undoing the results of his trial. The decision drew criticism from many members of the mainstream media, as well as current military officials and experts. Political Science professor Peter Feaver, for instance, said the affair “is seen as undermining civilian control by creating a political conflict and weakening public confidence.”
As a result of the multiple credible accusations of wrongdoing levied against Eddie Gallagher, the Navy had sought to remove him from the military, even after Trump restored his rank. This decision would have stripped Gallagher of his Trident Pin, a powerful and highly-prized symbol of one’s involvement in the Navy Seals. Trump intervened again, announcing on Twitter that Gallagher would keep his pin, a decision that as Commander-in-Chief the president has the right to make. That being said, it is highly unusual for a president to intervene in military affairs at this level, and the decision led Navy Secretary Richard Spencer to “propose a secret agreement with the White House” to resolve the conflict between the Navy and the president. Under this proposed agreement, Gallagher’s review would be held as planned, but Spencer would secretly guarantee that Gallagher could retain his rank. Upon learning about this secret plan, Navy Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked Spencer to resign for violating chain-of-command.
In his resignation letter, Richard Spencer presented a scathing criticism of the White House, writing “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath that I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The ousted Navy Secretary has the support of Democratic leaders in Congress, such as Senator Chuck Schumer, who said that “Spencer did the right thing and should be proud of standing up to President Trump when he was wrong, something too many in this administration and the Republican Party are scared to do.” Though congressional Democrats are nearly unanimous in their broad opposition to Trump, this recent military controversy is likely to expand this divide even further. Republicans, however, are sure to continue to stand with Trump in this conflict, and conservative media generally portrays Eddie Gallagher as an innocent man who has been victimized by an unfair political process.