SecDef: I Was 'Flabbergasted' to Learn about Spencer's Secret Deal with Trump

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U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper speaks during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper speaks during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

A day after Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked the Navy's top civilian leader to resign, he spoke publicly about the decision, saying Richard V. Spencer had broken crucial rules of trust and indicating he had been publicly dishonest on multiple occasions about his plans and intentions.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon Monday morning, Esper said Spencer's termination as Navy secretary was not ultimately about the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was publicly championed by President Donald Trump, but faced a review board and the loss of his prized trident pin after being found guilty of taking an inappropriate photo with a corpse in a war zone earlier this year.

Rather, Esper said, it was about Spencer's honesty regarding the matter.

"A senior White House official took [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and me] aside and said, 'Oh, by the way, did you know that ...' and then told me what had happened, that this proposal had been brought be Secretary Spencer, and we had no knowledge whatsoever," Esper said. "We were flabbergasted by it, and quite surprised and caught completely off guard."

According to Esper, Spencer had approached Trump with a deal regarding Gallagher: the SEAL would be guaranteed to keep his trident if the president allowed the Navy to proceed with a review board on the matter in a nod to proper procedures and protocol.

Related: Trump Restores Rank to SEAL, Grants Clemency to Soldiers in War Zone Crimes Cases

"This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to, and contrary to Secretary Spencer's public position," Esper said.

When approached, Esper said Spencer had been "forthright" and acknowledged his proposal.

Spencer, who has yet to speak publicly about the matter, maintained in a letter about his termination that his departure was based on a principled stand.

"Unfortunately it has become apparent that ... 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," he wrote in the letter. "I cannot 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."

Spencer also dissembled in other ways, Esper indicated. While the SecNav publicly and vocally denied that he had threatened to resign over Trump's intervention in Gallagher's case, Esper said he had the opposite understanding.

"Secretary Spencer said to me that he was ... likely, probably, going to resign if he was forced to [allow Gallagher to] retain the trident," Esper said. "So he had conveyed to me, I had every reason to believe that he was going to resign, that it was a threat to resign. So that was not true."

The conflicting accounts over Spencer's severance from his position have become something of a Rorschach test, with some in Congress hailing the former SecNav as having taken a principled stand against Trump, and others voicing support for Esper's decision.

"Secretary Spencer served with honor and integrity," Rep. Anthony Brown, a Maryland Democrat and the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "When forced to choose between his conscience and an order from Donald Trump, Secretary Spencer stood up to a lawless President who betrays the honorable service of the men and women who wear the uniform and diminishes America's moral authority."

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed Esper's decision to terminate the SecNav.

"It is no secret that I had my own disagreements with Secretary Spencer over the management of specific Navy programs, and I look forward to receiving and considering a nomination for the next Secretary of the Navy as soon as possible," he said in a brief statement.

Esper, who announced Sunday night that he was curtailing review proceedings for Gallagher and would allow him to keep his trident, said the politicization of the case would put undue pressure on a prospective review board.

"The case of Eddie Gallagher has dragged on for months and it's distracting. To me, it must end," he said. "Eddie Gallagher will return as the commander in chief directed and will retire at the end of this month. It is also my view that I believe strongly in process. The issue should not now be thrown into the laps of a board of [senior noncommissioned officers] to sort out, as professional as they are, no matter what they decide. They would be criticized for many sides, which would further drag this issue on dividing the institution."

However, he added, he was obeying a direct verbal order from Trump, delivered Sunday, in allowed Gallagher to keep his trident.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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