Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer resigned this weekend in a dispute over military justice for Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. His letter is a not-so-veiled dig at President Trump’s respect for the rule of law.
Here’s what happened: Gallagher was accused of crimes including the murder of a wounded Islamic State prisoner. He was convicted of one crime in his court-martial trial and the sentence included a demotion.
He was subject to a review board which would review the loss of his rank as a Navy SEAL. Trump ordered Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to restore the rank and end the review board. Spencer objected and then was terminated. (Esper says this was because Spencer tried to negotiate a deal directly with the President, going outside the chain of command.)
Here’s Spencer’s letter:
Dear Mr. President:
It has been the extreme honor of a lifetime to stand alongside the men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps team in the protection of the American people and the values we all hold dear.
Together we have made great strides over the past two years. strengthening the foundation of our readiness, and bolstering our constellation of allies and partners, to respond wherever needed with the honor and professionalism that have marked our force for the past 244 years.
Now more than ever. the United States Navy and Marine Corps stands ready and firm in every part of the globe, fueled at all times by our greatest resource — the men and women who wear the uniform. Many of
them will soon miss their Thanksgiving dinners at home so that they can continue the watch beyond the curve of the horizon. They and their families are, and will forever be my personal heroes.
As Secretary of the Navy, one the most important responsibilities I have to our people is to maintain good order and discipline throughout the ranks. I regard this as deadly serious business. The lives of our Sailors. Marines and civilian teammates quite literally depend on the professional execution of our many missions, and they also depend on the ongoing faith and support of the people we serve and the allies we serve alongside.
The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and again, from Captain Lawrence’s famous order “Don’t Give up the Ship”, to the discipline and determination that propelled our flag to the highest point on lwo Jima. The Constitution, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, are the shields that set us apart and the beacons that protect us all. Through my Title Ten Authority, I have strived to ensure our proceedings are fair, transparent and consistent, from the newest recruit to the Flag and General Officer level.
Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me, in regards to 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 United States.
The President deserves and should expect a Secretary of the Navy who is aligned with his vision for the future of our force generation and sustainment. Therefore, with pride in the achievements we’ve shared and everlasting faith in the continued service and fidelity of the finest Sailors, Marines and civilian teammates on earth, I hereby acknowledge my termination as United States Secretary of the Navy, to be effective immediately.
I will forever be grateful for every opportunity to have served. from my days as a Marine, to the extreme honor of serving as the 76th Secretary of the Navy. My wife Polly and I stand in appreciation and admiration of the patriots who today forge the next link in the unbroken chain of our Navy and Marine Corps, and we urge all Americans to keep them. and their families, in their hearts and prayers through this holiday season and beyond.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to serve.
Richard V. Spencer
This is quite clear without being insubordinate or insulting, if a bit long. It makes the necessary point without unduly showing up the president. But once you remove the fluff, it’s damning. Here’s a short version that says the same thing:
Dear Mr. President.
I’m committed to the defense of America and the service of the troops I command.
That service depends on obeying the rules of military justice and the rule of law.
Your request to maintain the status of Eddie Gallagher undermines military order. It is an order I cannot obey, so that’s it for me.
Richard V. Spencer
Some reflections on this situation
When Americans use guns and bombs overseas, there have to be rules. Otherwise, we are just a mob.
The President has the right to pardon any citizen or change any military ruling, as he did in this case. However, when he does in a case that is undergoing military justice, he sends the message that the rule of law in the military is not an absolute. This will embolden military officers who don’t want to obey the rules.
Spencer should have resigned immediately rather than attempting to negotiate with Trump directly. But his defense of principle stands.
Executive pardons and military interventions of this kind are statements of policy. When a president intervenes on behalf of a citizen or officer, he is saying that the conduct of that person does not warrant punishment.
A lot of officials have resigned in this administration. One interpretation is that the “deep state” can’t abide the way Donald Trump runs the government. Another is that the President is dismantling all the systems and safeguards that make the American government fair and workable. Which do you think is right?