Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Sunday for going behind his back in the handling of the war crimes case involving Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.
Despite President Donald Trump's public support for Gallagher, the White House had decided on Friday to let the Navy convene a Trident review board to determine whether Gallagher could keep his Trident pin, signifying his membership in the SEAL community, two senior Navy officials told ABC News.
But in a statement on Sunday evening, chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said that Spencer had gone behind Esper's back, proposing a deal to the White House that would allow Gallagher to retire with the Trident.
"When recently asked by Secretary Esper, Secretary Spencer confirmed that despite multiple conversations on the Gallagher matter, Secretary Esper was never informed by Secretary Spencer of his private proposal," the statement said.
That private proposal came to light after Esper spoke with the president on Friday about Gallagher's case. At the conclusion of that meeting Esper was surprised to learn from senior White House staff that earlier in the week Spencer had proposed that Gallagher could retire with his Trident, according to a defense official.
Ironically, Gallagher's lawyer confirmed to ABC News that before Spencer's firing became public Gallagher had decided to voluntarily relinquish his Trident for the good of the SEALs. Esper has now decided that Gallagher should be allowed to retire and keep his Trident pin.
"I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official." Esper said in the statement. "Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well."
Esper has proposed to the president that Ambassador Kenneth Braithwaite, the current U.S. ambassador to Norway and a retired Navy rear admiral, be considered as the next secretary of the Navy, Hoffman said. The president tweeted Sunday night that Braithwaite "will do an outstanding job."
The review board that would have determined whether Gallagher should keep his Trident will no longer be held, according to Defense officials. Esper has ordered that Gallagher be allowed to retire with his Trident pin.
"Secretary Esper's position with regard to [Uniform Code of Military Justice], disciplinary, and fitness for duty actions has always been that the process should be allowed to play itself out objectively and deliberately, in fairness to all parties," the statement said. "However, at this point, given the events of the last few days, Secretary Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his Trident pin."
But in his letter to Trump acknowledging his termination, a copy of which was obtained by ABC News, Spencer laid out a different narrative that suggests he does not support the idea of eschewing a review board.
“I have strived to ensure our proceedings are fair, transparent and consistent, from the newest recruit to the Flag and General Officer level," Spencer wrote.
"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," he added.
"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 an 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," he wrote.
Spencer told The Wall Street Journal that he had tried to arrange a deal where Trump would allow the Navy to carry out Gallagher's review and then Gallagher would be allowed to retire with his Trident pin.
But Gallagher's attorney confirmed to ABC News that moments before Spencer's firing becoming public Gallagher had already decided to voluntarily relinquish his Trident for the the good of the SEALS.
Tim Parlatore confirmed a Navy Times report that Gallagher had told him to draft a letter announcing that he would voluntarily relinquish his Trident for the good of the SEALs, the President, and the country out of a belief that his case had unwittingly become a lightning rod for criticism and partisan division.
Parlatore told ABC News that shortly afterward he received word that Esper had decided to let him keep the Trident.
Gallagher, while acquitted of killing a wounded Islamic State captive earlier this year, was sentenced to four months of time served and a reduction in rank for posing with a corpse during a 2017 deployment to Iraq. But earlier this month, Trump intervened in the SEAL's case, restoring his rank to E-7.
Just days later, the Navy announced they would convene the Trident review board, where a selection of Gallagher's peers would determine if he would remain a member of the SEAL community.
When the president tweeted on Thursday that the Navy "will NOT be taking away" Gallagher's Trident pin, the Navy "paused" their proceedings, saying they would await further guidance from the White House. But ultimately, the White House told the Navy it would not stop the review board from moving ahead. And it was unclear what led the president to change his mind.
Trump tweeted Sunday night, "I was not pleased with the way that Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s trial was handled by the Navy. He was treated very badly but, despite this, was completely exonerated on all major charges. I then restored Eddie’s rank. Likewise, large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures were not addressed to my satisfaction. Therefore, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer’s services have been terminated by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. I thank Richard for his service & commitment.
"Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin."
Gallagher thanked Trump for his actions in a statement provided by his lawyer, first reported by Fox News.
"President Donald Trump you have my deepest gratitude and thanks," he said. "You stepped in numerous times and showed true moral fiber by correcting all the wrongs that were being done to me. You are a true leader and exactly what the military and this nation needs."