On Thursday, the president showed fresh contempt for the professional judgment of military officers, tweeting “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” The Navy had intended to oust Gallagher from the SEALs for, among other things, his conviction at court-martial for posing in a photograph with the corpse of a 17-year-old captive Islamic State fighter.
Trump seems to think that condoning war crimes (as he did during the campaign) and freeing those who violate the code of conduct for our armed forces make him a tough guy, one of the boys and a hero to the military. The opposite is true. (“The U.S. military is given a unique charge: the right to kill on behalf of the state. Exercising that right, though, must be done in a manner consistent with the nation’s ideals,” Kristol and Petraeus write. “With only rare exceptions, members of the well-trained and professional U.S. military execute their missions with honor. For the few who don’t, the armed services must be allowed to hold them accountable.”)
Then, on Sunday, something curious happened. The secretary of the Navy refused to go along with this abomination. Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer was fired for allegedly trying to cut a private deal with the White House to "ensure that Gallagher retired as a Navy SEAL, with his Trident insignia, if they did not interfere with a review board convened to determine his fitness to stay in the elite force.” Spencer is accused of not relaying this proposal to the defense secretary, which differed from reports that he would resign unless the president relented.
It is hard to tell what to make of this convoluted explanation. As my colleague Josh Rogin and others point out, the story does not make much sense, and one might surmise Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper may have been dispatched to find a pretext for firing Spencer. (One cannot help but think of the firing of former FBI director James B. Comey whom Trump smeared to distract from his true motive, getting rid of his antagonist in the Russia investigation.)
What is clear is that Spencer could not abide by Trump’s contempt for the code of honor that our military must inculcate in all personnel and uphold even in moments of extreme duress in battle.
Spencer spoke for many military personnel and civilians when he wrote in a letter to Trump, “The lives of our Sailors, Marines and civilian teammates quite literally depend on the professional execution of our many missions, and they also depend on the ongoing faith and support of the people we serve and the allies we serve alongside.” He said he could not "in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took.”
Spencer delivered Trump a message that few aside from former defense secretary Jim Mattis have managed to do: “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. 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,” he wrote. “The Constitution, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, are the shields that set us apart, and the beacons that protect us all.”
Trump’s juvenile conception of manhood and utter inability to conceive of laws, codes of conduct or professional responsibilities that constrain us and reinforce our deepest-held values make him uniquely unfit to lead. Just as he remains a menace to the rule of law and to our international alliances, he is doing his best to degrade respect for our military and erode morale.
Three points should be underscored.
First, the congressional hawks who act as apologists for everything from betraying the Kurds to extorting the Ukrainians should see that they are enabling a president who undermines the honor and discipline of the military. Rather than falling all over themselves to defend Trump or make excuses for leaving him in office, perhaps hawks and former military men and women such as Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) should start defending the principles Trump attacks.
Second, Spencer is another in a line of public servants (e.g., Fiona Hill, William B. Taylor Jr.) who put their careers in jeopardy to defend our basic values and objective truth even as their superiors remain mute or continue to encourage Trump. Isn’t it time for Mattis to drop his inconsistent rule of silence and begin to defend the military’s honor, making clear that Trump is entirely unfit to lead?
Finally, it is essential for the House to conduct oversight hearings, calling Spencer and military experts to testify. Trump’s presidency is unraveling before our eyes, and it is up to Congress and current or former executive branch employees to expose this president’s wrongdoing and defend the military, the rule of law, the Western alliances and democratic norms against a commander in chief who literally cannot discern right from wrong.
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