Earlier this year, [Chief Petty Officer Edward] Gallagher was formally charged with more than a dozen criminal acts, including premeditated murder, which occurred during his eighth deployment overseas. He was tried in a military court in San Diego and acquitted in July of all charges, except one count of wrongfully posing for photographs with the body of a dead Islamic State fighter. The jury sentenced him to four months, the maximum possible; because he had served that amount of time waiting for trial, he was released.
President Trump involved himself in the case almost from the start. Before the trial began, in March, I received two calls from the president asking me to lift Gallagher’s confinement in a Navy brig; I pushed back twice, because the presiding judge, acting on information about the accused’s conduct, had decided that confinement was important. Eventually, the president ordered me to have him transferred to the equivalent of an enlisted barracks. I came to believe that Trump’s interest in the case stemmed partly from the way the defendant’s lawyers and others had worked to keep it front and center in the media.
After the verdict was delivered, the Navy’s normal process wasn’t finished. Gallagher had voluntarily submitted his request to retire. In his case, there were three questions: Would he be permitted to retire at the rank of chief, which is also known as an E-7? (The jury had said he should be busted to an E-6, a demotion.) The second was: Should he be allowed to leave the service with an “honorable” or “general under honorable” discharge? And a third: Should he be able to keep his Trident pin, the medal all SEALs wear and treasure as members of an elite force?
On Nov. 14, partly because the president had already contacted me twice, I sent him a note asking him not to get involved in these questions. The next day, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone called me and said the president would remain involved. Shortly thereafter, I received a second call from Cipollone, who said the president would order me to restore Gallagher to the rank of chief.
This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review. It was also a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices. [Continue reading…]