Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
“A lot of warfighters and people in the military have thanked us very much. It’s about time,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
“They wanted to get his pin away and I said no you’re not going to take it away,” Trump continued, particularly referring to his order that Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher be allowed to keep his Trident pin and Navy SEAL status.
“These are not weak people. These are tough people and we’re going to protect our warfighters,” Trump said.
Backstory: Trump has faced scrutiny in recent days for intervening in the case of Gallagher, a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes, in order to ensure he could retire with his elite status. Gallagher was acquitted of murder in the death of an ISIS prisoner in Iraq but convicted of posing with the corpse in 2017.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters earlier Monday that Trump had ordered him to allow Gallagher to retire without losing his status as a SEAL.
The controversy culminated in Spencer’s firing on Sunday, which was marred by confusion.
Esper weighs in: Earlier Monday. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday confirmed that President Trump ordered him to allow a Navy SEAL to keep his Trident pin despite his conviction for posing with the corpse of a slain ISIS fighter.
“I spoke with the President on Sunday. He gave me the order that Eddie Gallagher will retain his Trident pin,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon, referring to Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher.
Why this matters: Trump last week tweeted that he wanted Gallagher to be allowed to retire as a SEAL, but Esper’s new admission shows that Trump directly intervened to make sure it happened, breaking with the regular process which would have included an internal Pentagon review of the case.
Trump reversed the demotion and pardoned two other service members accused of war crimes, going against the wishes of military leaders.
Gallagher earlier this year was acquitted of murder after he was accused of stabbing a captured enemy combatant. But he was convicted of bringing discredit to the armed services and demoted for posing next to the dead man’s body.
Esper said that when he spoke with Trump on Sunday to update him on the situation, the president pressed for Gallagher’s Trident pin to be restored and he replied, “Roger, I got it.”
Closing the case: He also indicated that the case had become too much of a distraction and was being put to rest at the Pentagon.
“The case of Eddie Gallagher has dragged on for months and has distracted too many. It must end,” Esper said. “Eddie Gallagher will retain his Trident as the commander in chief directed and will retire at the end of this month.”
He later added, “I want the SEALs and the Navy to move beyond this now and get fully focused on their warfighting mission.”
He also addressed criticisms of Trump’s interference in the Pentagon’s process.
“If folks want to criticize anyone at this point for reaching down into administrative processes, simply blame me. I’m responsible at this point. It’s not where I prefer to be, but I’ll own it,” Esper said.
“I can control what I can control. I’m the secretary of Defense responsible for the department. My view is, we will follow our processes. That is what we agreed to. That is the position I took to the White House. … The president is the commander in chief, he has every right, authority, and privilege to do what he wants to do.”
Spencer out: Esper also told reporters that former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who stepped down the day prior, told him he would quit if he was made to give Gallagher his Trident.
Esper, Spencer and Trump have all given different reasons for Spencer’s ouster.
Earlier: The Pentagon, in a Sunday statement, said Esper asked for Spencer’s resignation after he found out that Spencer privately asked White House officials to allow Gallagher to retain his Trident pin, going behind Esper’s back, if Trump agreed to let the legal process run its course.
“Secretary Esper learned that Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin,” spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. “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.”
“I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior [Department of Defense] 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.”
Spencer’s side: Spencer, however, said in a letter that he was leaving because “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.”
And Trump over several Twitter posts on Sunday said he was “not pleased” with the way the Navy handled Gallagher’s trial. He also pointed to “large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures [that] were not addressed to my satisfaction,” though he did not note which programs he was referring to.
Esper said Monday that “contrary to the narrative that some want to put forward in the media, this dismissal is not about Eddie Gallagher, it’s about Secretary Spencer and the chain of command.”
Milley weighs in: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on Monday reportedly said the controversial case over a Navy SEAL that led to the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer is now “closed.”
“I think at this point the secretary of defense has made decisions [and] the case is now, in my view, it is closed,” Milley told reporters, according to Reuters. His comments came a day after Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked for the resignation of Spencer.
Milley told reporters that the hiring and firing of civilian leadership at the Pentagon was out of his purview, according to Reuters.
“[Esper] has made decisions for good reasons, that are within his power to make decisions, and I’ll support the secretary of defense in those decisions,” Milley added.
In a statement, the senator praised Spencer for “standing up to President Trump when he was wrong.”
“I just spoke to former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer. I told him he’s a patriot, that he served the Navy and the nation well and he will be missed,” Schumer said in the statement.
Who will take his place: Kenneth Braithwaite, the administration’s current ambassador to Norway, will be Trump’s nominee to replace Spencer, the president added in his tweets.
“Admiral and now Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite will be nominated by me to be the new Secretary of the Navy. A man of great achievement and success, I know Ken will do an outstanding job!” the president tweeted.
More to come? The former Navy secretary has an interviewing airing on CBS Evening News tonight.
TRUMP HONORS MILITARY DOG FROM RAID ON ISIS LEADER: Trump on Monday welcomed to the White House the military working dog wounded in last month’s raid against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.
“Conan came over from the Middle East,” Trump said at an impromptu ceremony at the White House Rose Garden, referring to the Belgian Malinois dog by its name. “We just gave Conan a medal and a plaque.”
“Conan is a tough cookie. And nobody is going to mess with Conan,” Trump said.
Who was there: He was joined at the Rose Garden event by Vice President Pence and first lady Melania Trump. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro was on the White House colonnade observing the event.
Trump said he met with some U.S. special forces at the White House, but that their identities could not be revealed to the media.
“For obvious reasons, they can’t be out front of the media,” Trump said. “They did a fantastic job. Conan did a fantastic job. And we are very honored to have Conan here and to give Conan a certificate and an award that we will put up in the White House.”
What happens to Conan now: Conan will return to service, Trump said, because he is “prime time” in terms of age.
The event was mostly light-hearted, and Trump did not respond to shouted questions about the recent ouster of his Navy secretary. Pence occasionally rubbed the dog’s head as it sat a few steps from the Oval Office.
The president joked that Conan was trained to attack if reporters opened their mouths, and later said to one journalist that he was lucky the dog was not in a bad mood.
As officials turned to reenter the White House, Melania Trump responded to a shouted question and said, smiling, that she would not be keeping the dog to give to her son, Barron, as a pet.
The Center for a New American Security will hold a fireside chat with Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics at 9:30 a.m. in Washington, D.C.
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