Sun. Feb 23rd, 2020

Democratic lawmakers are calling on the Pentagon following Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer’s sudden firing at the start of this week. At the same time, Republicans have lined up in support of the president on the matter.

Familiar partisan battle lines began emerging after Defense Secretary Mark Esper said President Donald Trump gave him a direct order to allow Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher to keep his prized trident pin, and dispense with a formal Navy review on the matter.

Esper said he asked for Spencer’s resignation after he learned of a deal the former Navy secretary tried to make with the White House regarding Gallagher — that the SEAL would be guaranteed to keep his trident if Trump did not intervene in the review process. In an interview with CBS News, Spencer said he tried to make the deal in an effort to head off an order from Trump regarding Gallagher’s case.

In a resignation letter, Spencer said he could not “in good conscience obey an order that I believe violated 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.”

Rep. Jackie Speier and Sen. Tim Kaine have called for investigations into Spencer’s Sunday ousting and Trump’s role in the Gallagher case. Speier, from California, sits on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs its Military Personnel subcommittee. Kaine, of Virginia, serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Related: Gallagher was Planning to Give Up His Trident Before SecNav Was Fired

“We’ve had our disagreements, but I am still distressed to see Sec. Spencer dismissed in the wake of [Trump’s] efforts to subvert the military justice system,” Speier tweeted. “I will be calling on the DOD Inspector General to investigate and determine the circumstances of his termination.”

Kaine, who represents a state with the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, said in a Monday statement that there are still “many unanswered questions about Secretary Spencer’s departure.” The Senate Armed Services Committee “must fully investigate what happened to ensure accountability,” he added, though it appeared doubtful an investigation would gain traction in the chamber where Republicans hold the majority.

By Tuesday, several Republican lawmakers called Spencer’s removal justified.

“Both Secretary Esper and President Trump deserve to have a leadership team who has their trust and confidence,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said in a statement.

One of the issues in the case of Gallagher, who was acquitted of murder charges in the death of an Iraqi captive but convicted of posing for a photo with the dead body, was the ability of the services to set standards for professional conduct without White House interference.

Both Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army Gen. Mark Milley had pressed the White House to allow military procedures to “play out,” the defense secretary, before intervening.

However, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., who served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq, said Trump as commander in chief had the right to intercede at his discretion.

“It is his prerogative to weigh in like he did,” Zeldin said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Whether it’s a past president or future president, as commander in chief it’s their prerogative if they want to defend somebody like this who has really gone through a lot” in the course of a court martial.

But Maryland Democrat Rep. Anthony Brown, a 30-year Army veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Trump had undermined the military’s code of conduct by ordering that Gallagher retain his trident pin before a review could convene.

“Disregarding the code of conduct that binds warfighters and trivializing the values they defend, undermines good order and discipline and shatters the moral compass our troops depend upon on the battlefield,” Brown said.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking member of the SASC, said Trump’s intervention in the Gallagher case and Spencer’s resignation fit a pattern of disregard for military order and discipline.

“The White House’s handling of this matter erodes the basic command structure of the military and the basic function of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Reed said of the Gallagher case.

Spencer’s resignation under pressure was “another consequence of the disarray brought about by President Trump’s inappropriate involvement in the military justice system and the disorder and dysfunction that has been a constant presence in this administration,” Reed added.

— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

— Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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