By Idrees Ali and Steve Gorman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and senior Navy officials clashed over a high-profile war-crimes case as Trump vowed on Twitter on Thursday he would not allow a Navy SEAL convicted of battlefield misconduct to be expelled from the elite commando force.
Trump again intervened in events surrounding the court-martial of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher despite the support of top Navy leaders for the decision to formally review Gallagher’s fitness to remain a SEAL.
Gallagher’s lawyer said his client was told by a naval special warfare command representative on Thursday that proceedings against him will go forward, regardless of Trump’s assertion to the contrary.
The Navy’s chief spokesman later said that “lawful orders” from the president to halt the review would be followed and the Navy was “awaiting further guidance.”
A military jury in July convicted Gallagher of illegally posing for pictures with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter while deployed to Iraq in 2017 but acquitted him of murder in the detainee’s death. Gallagher also was cleared of charges that he deliberately fired on unarmed civilians.
He was sentenced to a demotion in rank and pay, but not prison time.
Trump last Friday restored Gallagher’s rank and pay, allowing him to retire on a full pension, while pardoning two Army officers who were separately accused of war crimes in Afghanistan.
Critics said Trump’s actions undermined military justice and sent a message that battlefield atrocities would be tolerated.
However, the Navy’s top SEAL, Rear Admiral Collin Green, commander of naval special warfare, followed Trump’s move on Gallagher’s behalf by convening a special five-member panel to review the case and recommend whether he should be stripped of the trident pin designating him a SEAL.
Gallagher, 40, was formally notified on Wednesday that he was the subject of a “trident review board” hearing set for Dec. 2.
Green did not act without superiors’ approval. Plans to open the review were discussed and cleared in advance with a number of senior Pentagon officials, including Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and the chief of naval operations, Admiral Michael Gilda, Defense Department sources told Reuters.
Trump’s rebuke on Twitter came the next morning.
“The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!” Trump tweeted.
A short time later, Gallagher was told in person by a representative of Green’s special warfare command at Naval Base Coronado, near San Diego, that the review would proceed as planned, according to Gallagher’s lead defense attorney, Timothy Parlatore.
Parlatore told Reuters he, nevertheless, took the meaning of Trump’s declaration on Twitter as a “direct and lawful order from the commander-in-chief.”
Rear Admiral Charlie Brown, a Navy spokesman in Washington, issued a statement Thursday evening indicating the Navy was looking for a formal directive, as opposed to a presidential tweet.
“The Navy follows the lawful orders of the President,” he said. “We are aware of the President’s tweet and we are awaiting further guidance.”
It was not clear how a resolution of the Gallagher review would affect similar proceedings ordered by Admiral Green for three of Gallagher’s commanding officers, whose accountability the Navy said was called into question by Gallagher’s conduct.
Gallagher, a decorated platoon leader, has insisted that aside from the photos for which he was punished, the accusations against him were fabricated by disgruntled, inexperienced subordinates who objected to his leadership style and tactics.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington and Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool)