Top military officials threatened to resign or be fired if their plans to remove Chief Gallagher from the SEALs were halted by President Trump, administration officials said.
The secretary of the Navy and the admiral who leads the SEALs have threatened to resign or be fired if plans to expel a commando from the elite unit in a war crimes case are halted by President Trump, administration officials said Saturday.
The Navy is proceeding with the disciplinary plans against the commando, Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who counts Mr. Trump as one of his most vocal supporters. After reversing a demotion in recent days, the president suggested on Thursday that he would intervene again in the case, saying that the sailor should remain in the unit.
The threats by the Navy secretary, Richard V. Spencer, and the commander, Rear Adm. Collin Green, are a rare instance of pushback against Mr. Trump from members of the Defense Department. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrambled to come up with a face-saving compromise this past week in the hope that Mr. Trump could be persuaded to change his mind.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump, referring to the pin that signifies membership in an elite force, said on Twitter that “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” He added: “This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”
One argument that officials said may be relied on is the assumption that a tweet does not constitute a formal presidential order. Mr. Esper and General Milley conveyed to the president that if he followed up that tweet with a direct order, there would be huge consequences: Mr. Trump would lose Mr. Spencer and Admiral Green, further infuriate his top military leadership and do untold damage to decades of military justice doctrine, according to administration officials.
Administration officials said they now hoped that Mr. Trump would allow the proceedings to continue, but it is unclear whether the president will do so. The debate over Chief Gallagher comes as Mr. Trump, facing a difficult re-election battle and an impeachment inquiry, has increasingly sought to highlight his role as commander in chief.
Chief Gallagher was accused of shooting civilians, murdering a captive Islamic State fighter with a hunting knife in Iraq, and threatening to kill SEALs who reported him, among other misconduct. His court-martial ended in acquittal on those charges.
But the Navy ultimately demoted the chief, who was convicted of one charge: bringing discredit to the armed forces by posing for photos with the teenage captive’s dead body.
Chief Gallagher’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said the president was right to stop the process of ousting the commando because the Navy’s move was clear retribution, coming just days after the president’s decision to restore his rank.
“With the timing, it’s difficult to see how this was anything but a direct, public rebuke to the president,” Mr. Parlatore said. “So I can’t see how the secretary of defense or anyone else is going to convince the president that is O.K.”
On Friday, Mr. Spencer made clear that he wanted to move forward with the matter, which could strip Chief Gallagher of his Trident pin. “I believe the process matters for good order and discipline,” he told Reuters in an interview at a security forum in Nova Scotia.
On Saturday, a Navy spokesman pointed to those remarks. “The secretary’s comments are in line with current White House guidance,” said Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the chief spokesman for the Navy.
A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
The gold insignia Trident pin is one of the most revered in the military. It features an eagle on an anchor, clutching a flintlock pistol and a trident, and represents the grit of sailors who made it through some of the toughest training in the Navy, and are given some of the riskiest missions. It stands for fidelity and sacrifice. Even in death, the pin plays a role: SEALs pound their pins into the wood of fallen comrades’ caskets.
The Pentagon had already been quietly fuming this month after Mr. Trump cleared three members of the armed services, including Chief Gallagher, who were accused or had been convicted of war crimes, overruling military leaders who sought to punish them. All three were lionized by conservative commentators who portrayed them as war heroes unfairly prosecuted for actions taken in the heat of battle.
Mr. Trump, who was lobbied heavily by the families of the three service members, announced on Nov. 15 that he was reversing the demotion of Chief Gallagher. He also ordered the full pardon of Clint Lorance, a former Army lieutenant who was serving a 19-year sentence in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth for the murder of two civilians; and of Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, an Army Special Forces officer who was facing murder charges for killing an unarmed Afghan he believed was a Taliban bomb maker.
One of the jurors who convicted Chief Gallagher expressed dismay at the president’s actions in an interview on Friday, noting that the all-military jury had given Chief Gallagher the maximum punishment allowable under the law because it found his behavior so reprehensible. He spoke out for the first time to defend the decision of the jury.
“People keep saying all he did is pose in a photo and there were lots of other guys in the photo,” said the juror, who asked that his name not be used to protect the privacy of the deliberations. “But he was the senior enlisted guy there, the oldest, the most experienced. He should have set an example for good order and discipline. He should have ensured stuff like that wasn’t happening. And he didn’t. He doesn’t deserve to wear chief’s anchors.”
The juror said he hoped the Trident review process would be allowed to go forward, adding, “Let other SEALs decide if he deserves to be a SEAL.”