(CN) – One day after firing the Navy’s top official, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that President Donald Trump ordered him to let a SEAL accused of war crimes retire without being stripped of his status.
Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that a direct verbal order from Trump was the reason he announced on Sunday that Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher will retain his elite Navy SEAL rank when retires at the end of the month.
Following a highly publicized war crimes court-martial, Gallagher was acquitted of murdering an Islamic State group captive but jurors convicted him of taking unauthorized photos with the militant’s corpse while serving in Iraq in 2017.
Esper’s statement Monday came as a rift between U.S. Navy officials, the Pentagon and the White House widened following Trump’s involvement in the case.
The Navy had demoted Gallagher because his actions violated military rules, but Trump intervened against the advice of Pentagon officials. Gallagher was set to face a review board on Dec. 2 and it was expected that he would formally be expelled from the elite force.
The Navy “will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin,” Trump tweeted last Thursday, referring to the symbol that designates the sailor a SEAL.
On Saturday, then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said the commander in chief is involved in every aspect of government, but added that he didn’t consider Trump’s tweet to be a formal order to stop Gallagher’s review process.
Esper fired Spencer the next day, with a spokesperson saying Sunday that the defense secretary had lost “trust and confidence” in the Navy’s top official after learning that Spencer allegedly reached a “secret agreement with the White House” to rig the disciplinary process so Gallagher could maintain his status as a SEAL.
But in a letter submitted upon his resignation, Spencer said he had been given an order that he could not in “good conscience obey,” noting he and the president who had appointed him have different views on military justice.
On Monday, Esper said the president has “every right” to issue an order stopping the Navy review process and said he was given “verbal instruction” by Trump to do so.
“The commander in chief has certain constitutional rights and powers which he is free to exercise, as many presidents have done in the past,” Esper said.
Trump announced on Sunday that he will nominate U.S. Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite to replace Spencer. In a tweet, he claimed — contrary to all official statements— that Spencer was asked to resign because “large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures were not addressed to my satisfaction.”
The White House and Defense Department could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.