Another top Trump administration official has resigned/been fired, and it’s raising fresh questions about President Donald Trump’s respect for justice and the rule of law – things that should be his job to uphold.
This time, it’s Navy Secretary Richard Spencer who’s out, apparently because he disagreed with the President’s efforts on behalf of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who killed a teenager in his care in Iraq in 2017 and then posed for photos with the body. But Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has a different version of events – that Spencer went out of the chain of command to negotiate with the White House over a review of the case. And Trump has a third – that he wasn’t satisfied with how the SEAL’s case has been handled at all.
The one thing that’s clear is the President is again following a now-familiar pattern, trying to bend the US government to suit his purposes.
Trump’s support for Gallagher and other convicted service members has triggered warnings from commanders that efforts on Gallagher’s behalf jeopardize the rule of law in combat. The Navy also dropped charges against Gallagher’s commanding officer.
It’s not too far a leap from Trump’s skepticism of a criminal justice system that grew up over the course of hundreds of years in the military to his skepticism about the rest of the US government. And he’s more than happy to use his power as President to change it, no matter what the people in his administration or at the Pentagon say.
“What I’m doing is sticking up for our armed forces. There’s never been a president that’s going to stick up for them and has like I have,” he told reporters Monday at the White House.
It was Trump’s direct order that spared Gallagher from a review to determine if he was fit to serve, which is normal protocol for a convicted service member. In Gallagher’s case, the review was expected to lead to his expulsion from the elite force.
“I spoke to the President on Sunday. He gave me the order that Eddie Gallagher will retain his Trident,” Esper told reporters Monday, referring to the pin worn by SEALs.
Esper will do what Trump wanted, so he’ll stay for now. But eventually Trump has demanded action that many of his top officials felt was betraying the interests of the US or the normal functions of the US system of government.
In his resignation letter Sunday, Spencer suggested Trump’s support for Gallagher risks jeopardizing the rule of law.
“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” he wrote. “Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and again, from Captain Lawrence’s famous order ‘Don’t give up the Ship,’ to the discipline and determination that propelled our flag to the highest point on lwo Jima.”
The allegation underneath the letter is that Trump simply does not understand the idea of good order, discipline and accountability.
“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. 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,” Spencer wrote.
That would be a remarkable claim in any circumstances. If you put in the context of the many other military and national security officials who have fled the administration or been fired, it’s seriously alarming.
That’s the basic outline of Trump’s treatment of Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state, with whom he clashed on North Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
It’s generally what drove James Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary, to resign with a spectacularly pointed resignation letter a little less than a year ago, warning about the danger of Trump’s commitment to his dangerous nationalist views.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” Mattis said in the letter, which he hand-delivered to Trump in December 2018.
It’s what former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who had stepped up repeatedly to defend separating immigrant families at the US border, says happened to her after Trump decided she still wasn’t hard enough. At an event in Washington in October, she argued the law supported the childhood separation policy, but she said she ultimately left the administration because her own opposition to other policies wouldn’t be enough to stop them.
“There were a lot of things that, there were those in the administration who thought that we should do, and just as I spoke truth to power from the very beginning, it became clear that saying no, and refusing to do it myself was not going to be enough, so it was time for me to offer my resignation,” she said at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit.
Her successor, Kevin McAleenan, stepped down in October. Trump had never formally nominated him to take the job full time.
McAleenan has not talked in the same terms as Nielsen, but he did talk about the difficulty of leading the agency in the Trump era.
“What I don’t have control over is the tone, the message, the public face and approach of the department in an increasingly polarized time,” he told The Washington Post. “That’s uncomfortable, as the accountable, senior figure.”
The “accountable figure” for the Navy was Spencer. And Trump clearly was not happy with the application of law and rules to Gallagher after the SEAL became a cause célèbre on Fox News.
Trump also soured on Nielsen’s predecessor John Kelly, who took over as White House chief of staff and recently warned Trump not to pick a “yes man” as his successor there. Trump picked Mick Mulvaney, still the acting chief of staff after a year, but clearly on board with Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations that would be politically advantageous to the President, as Mulvaney explained in a news conference in October.
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, clashed with the President repeatedly on policy, and when he left, it wasn’t clear if he’d been fired (as Trump claimed) or resigned (as Bolton claimed).
Bolton’s resignation letter was just one terse line.
“‘I hereby resign, effective immediately, as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Thank you for having afforded me this opportunity to serve our country.”
But Bolton has suggested in recent tweets that he has more to tell. He has a book coming out next year and has said he could testify in Trump impeachment proceedings if a judge absolves him of the President’s claims of executive privilege to mask their conversations.
So much of what Trump does offends or surprises national security officials, such as when he decided, apparently by tweet, to reverse an Obama-era decision to allow transgender troops to serve openly.
Or when he surprised Pentagon officials by deploying the National Guard to the US border. Pentagon officials refused to allow soldiers to perform law enforcement duties there. Or when, with Esper’s help, he decided to use defense funds to begin constructing his long-promised wall at the Mexico border when there was bipartisan opposition to the funding in Congress.
It may be the natural danger of governing after consultation with Fox News pundits rather than government officials, but it feels like an everyday occurrence in Trump’s administration.