Trump’s actions raise concern about role in military justice

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FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2019, file photo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper participates in a briefing with President Donald Trump and senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington. Esper declared on Monday, Nov. 25 that President Donald Trump ordered him to stop a disciplinary review of a Navy SEAL accused of battlefield misconduct, an intervention that raised questions about Americas commitment to international standards for battlefield ethics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

WASHINGTON, DC – Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared that President Donald Trump ordered him to stop a disciplinary review of a Navy SEAL accused of battlefield misconduct, an intervention that raised questions about America’s commitment to international standards for battlefield ethics.

Esper’s comments on Monday were the latest twist in the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, which led to a conflict between Trump and armed services leaders over military discipline. The dispute peaked over the weekend with the firing of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer.

Gallagher was acquitted of murder in the stabbing death of an Islamic State militant captive but convicted by a military jury of posing with the corpse while in Iraq in 2017.

Esper initially favored allowing the Navy to proceed with a peer-review board which could have resulted in Gallagher losing his SEAL status, but he said he was obliged to follow Trump’s order. Still, Esper also directed the Pentagon’s legal office to review how service members are educated in the laws of armed conflict and trained to wartime behavioral standards.

“I can control what I can control,” Esper told reporters when asked whether Trump sent the right message to U.S. troops by intervening to stop the Gallagher review. “The president is the commander in chief. He has every right, authority and privilege to do what he wants to do.”

In yet another twist to the Gallagher saga, Esper also made an extraordinary accusation against Spencer.

Esper said Spencer had gone behind his back last week to propose a secret deal with the White House in which Spencer would fix the outcome of the Gallagher review. Esper said this was a violation of the military chain of command and said Spencer acknowledged his misstep.

Through a Navy spokesman, Spencer declined requests for comment on Esper’s allegation. However, in a letter to Trump on Sunday he said he could not in good conscience follow an order that he believed would undermine the principle of good order and discipline in the military — suggesting he had been ordered to stop the peer-review process for Gallagher.