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The fallout from Trump’s intervention in Navy SEAL discipline case

President Trump and U.S. military leadership clashed this weekend over the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a highly decorated Navy SEAL accused and acquitted of war crimes but convicted of posing in a photograph with a dead militant’s body. The controversy ultimately led to the firing of the secretary of the Navy. William Brangham talks to The Wall Street Journal’s Nancy Youssef.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    War and crimes, the two came to a head this weekend with a divide between the military and the commander in chief.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • William Brangham:

    At the center of all of this is the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a highly decorated Navy SEAL.

    Previously, he was accused of murdering a wounded ISIS militant in Iraq in 2017 and of shooting at civilians. A court-martial acquitted him on those charges, but did convict him of posing in a photograph with the dead militant's body. Gallagher was demoted for that.

    But the controversy since has been whether the Navy should mete out any further punishment, like whether he should keep his status as a Navy SEAL and keep the emblem of that force, a pin showing an eagle carrying a trident and a musket.

    The president has routinely championed Gallagher and said that he wouldn't allow the Navy to punish Gallagher anymore.

    And then, last night, the secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, was forced out of his post by the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, over his handling of Gallagher's case.

    Here to walk us through this controversy is Nancy Youssef. She's a national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Nancy Youssef:

    Great to be with you.

  • William Brangham:

    Gallagher's case is over, but then Rear Admiral Green, who oversees the Navy SEALs, decides he wants to have Gallagher out of the service. He doesn't want him to be a SEAL anymore.

    Pick up the story from there.

  • Nancy Youssef:

    Well, he wants is to say that the military should review whether Chief Gallagher should have the distinction and the honor of being called a Navy SEAL after this case.

    And so he calls for a review board. And that's where peers come forward, look at the case, and decide whether he should be able to keep something called the trident pin, which sort of signifies publicly and on your uniform that you're a member of one of the most elite forces in the United States military.

    And I think that's what Admiral Green was trying to get at with this review process. And that, after the fact that the president had restored his rank and brought back his pay, was sort of the last outstanding issue vis-a-vis this case.

  • William Brangham:

    And so then how did — explain the process by which the secretary of the Navy is out.

  • Nancy Youssef:

    And so what happened was, there was really concern within the United States military leadership about the prospect of restoring Chief Gallagher's rank and pardoning two other service members who are also accused of committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The feeling was that, once you did that, and had an outside intervention, it potentially undid the — or threatened the sanctity of sort of good order and discipline that is so critical to the military.

    And the other fear was that if the U.S. didn't prosecute those accused of killing civilians in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it would send a negative message to key partners.

    And so he was pardoned — excuse me — he was — his rank restored. And Secretary Spencer was among those who was really against the outside intervention.

  • William Brangham:

    So the Navy secretary is pushed out by the secretary of defense.

    And in his letter sort of acknowledging resignation, he says this — quote — "I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took."

    But the secretary of defense's problem, it seems, with the secretary of the Navy was something other. It was about a back channel he was doing with the White House. Can you explain that?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    Sure.

    So, the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, came out today and said that the U.S. military leadership had agreed that they would allow the process over his trident pin to proceed, and that he learned two days ago that Secretary Spencer had tried to come up with a back-channel deal in which the — Chief Gallagher would be allowed to keep his pin, regardless of the findings of the panel.

    And Secretary Esper said that he lost confidence in Secretary Spencer because he was usurping the existing process.

  • William Brangham:

    And in the middle of all of this, of course, then Eddie Gallagher goes on FOX News, which has been his champion all along and championed his case from when he was back in the brig, all the way through to his court-martial.

  • Nancy Youssef:

    That's right.

  • William Brangham:

    And Gallagher is kind of remarkably very, very critical of some of his superiors.

    Let's take a listen to what he said.

  • Edward Gallagher:

    This is all about ego and retaliation. This has nothing to do with good order and discipline. They could have taken my trident at any — any time they wanted. Now they're trying to take it after the president restored my rank.

  • William Brangham:

    Later, in that same interview, he went on to specifically, by name, criticize his superior officer, Rear Admiral Green.

    I mean, again, for people who don't appreciate this, how unusual is it for a sailor to say those things about his commanding officer?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    It's extraordinarily unusual, because there's a chain of command, and you're not allowed to criticize your superiors in a one-on-one setting within your company, your unit, and let alone on FOX News.

    But I think it really gets at how much this case depended on him behind becoming a cause celebre on FOX News. Sean Hannity had taken a personal interest in — but for that, it's not clear that this case would have gotten the kind of attention that it did.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, what are you hearing amongst the military community more broadly about this particular case? Does this have a lasting impact, or is this just a one-and-done?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    No, I think it does have a lasting impact.

    Like most things around this case, it's become very polarized. You hear people look at Chief Gallagher as either a war hero or a war criminal. You hear about concerns about the enduring impact of what happens when the military justice system can be undone with outside intervention.

    There are concerns that perhaps other service members will come forward and ask for an outside intervention and seek to undo the rulings of the military court system. And so there's a real wait-and-see approach in terms of what the after-effects are, the second- and third-order effects.

    There's an expectation that they will happen. And yet there are those who think that this was the president's prerogative, his right to do, and all falls within the proper chain of command.

    And so, like most things around this case, it has led to really polarized reactions even within the Pentagon.

  • William Brangham:

    Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much.

  • Nancy Youssef:

    Thank you.

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