Defense Secretary Mark Esper has revealed that President Donald Trump directly ordered him to halt disciplinary proceedings against an elite U.S. soldier accused of war crimes.
Trump’s directive thickened the plot in a controversy that resulted in the axing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer over the weekend.
Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Esper said that Trump’s verbal order was the reason he announced on Sunday that Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher would be allowed to retire with his Trident Pin and Navy SEAL rank intact.
Although it was Trump’s pressure that ultimately prompted him to intervene, Esper said that he was taking the fall for “reaching down into administrative processes”.
“If folks want to criticize anyone at this point … simply blame me.
“I’m responsible at this point. It’s not where I prefer to be, but I’ll own it,” he said.
Esper also took a shot at Spencer, accusing him of going behind his back in trying to broker a secret deal with Trump, in which he would personally ensure Gallagher would not lose his Trident as long as the White House stayed out of the disciplinary process.
The defense secretary fired Spencer on Sunday over the allegations.
On Monday, he said he was “flabbergasted” after learning of Spencer’s freelancing, calling it “completely contrary” to what Pentagon brass had agreed upon.
Spencer has not responded directly to Esper’s accusation.
In a resignation letter Sunday, Spencer said that he and the president did not share “the key principle of good order and discipline.
“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family.
“My flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the U.S.,” he wrote.
A White House spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment.
Gallagher was acquitted earlier this year of stabbing an incarcerated Islamic State militant to death but convicted on charges that he posed for photos with the person’s corpse in Iraq in 2017.
The Navy SEAL review board was supposed to hear Gallagher’s case on Dec. 2 to determine whether he should be stripped of his Trident Pin.
Trump’s order to Esper curtailed those proceedings, prompting criticism that the president was overstepping his authority in interfering with military justice.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) praised Spencer on Sunday for doing “the right thing” in “standing up to President Trump when he was wrong”.
Schumer added in a statement: “Good order, discipline, and morale among the Armed Services must transcend politics, and Secretary Spencer’s commitment to these principles with not be forgotten.”