Navy Secretary Richard Spencer’s firing has unleashed a new round of criticism aimed at Donald Trump’s lawful exercise of presidential power. The president had personally taken up the cause of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a 20-year decorated Navy veteran and member of SEAL Team 7.
Gallagher had faced war crimes charges stemming primarily from the fatal stabbing of an Islamic State captive in Iraq in 2017. A military jury acquitted him of all charges except posing with the corpse in a photo, though he was one of about a dozen other men in the picture. He was sentenced to time-served and had his rank reduced, which effectively cut his retirement pension. The Navy also began a process to review whether he should lose his status as a SEAL.
President Trump said the case was “handled very badly from the beginning” and reversed the demotion. But the Navy was pressing ahead with the review board over Gallagher’s right to wear the SEAL Trident. Spencer secretly approached the White House, allegedly offering to pre-determine the outcome of the review favorably for Gallagher if the president would let it move forward. But he had not cleared this plan with his superiors, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper was “flabbergasted” to learn of the back-door offer when he went to the White House with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley to make the case for the review to continue.
It was a bad move by Spencer; he was relieved for “lack of candor,” among other things, but he really got the boot for trying to game the system and getting caught.
Taken in this light, the letter Spencer wrote to the president after he was fired comes across as peak swamp-dweller posturing. “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” he declared, saying he no longer shares “the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me, in regards [sic] to the key principle of good order and discipline.” Remember, this was a guy who was cutting a deal behind his boss’ back to rig a review board outcome while publicly signaling his virtue. It’s not exactly a profile in courage moment.
Naturally, the spin from the anti-Trumpers has put the blame on the president. The non-government Navy Times declared a “crisis in civil-military relations” even before Spencer was forced out, saying there was resistance among admirals against the president’s lawful exercise of his powers as Commander-in-Chief. CNN complained that this was another example of the president “trying to bend the U.S. government to suit his purposes,” which actually sums up exactly what the people who elected Trump want him to do.
The Washington Post went further (of course) with a column alleging that the situation “bears a remarkable resemblance to the Ukraine scandal” in that “many national security and foreign policy professionals” who believe that “their purpose was to advance the interests of the United States” found to their dismay “that policy was being propelled instead by Trump’s personal interests.”
The entire impeachment drama on Capitol Hill last week was driven by this inherent sense of entitlement, by the bruised egos of diplomats and mid-grade bureaucrats whose advice and opinions regarding Ukraine were ignored, and by alleged experts who discovered they were not that important to the process after all.
This particular breed of anti-Trumper, the member of the inside-the-government resistance, likes to invoke some imagined higher duty to the nation to justify their insubordination. As Spencer wrote in his self-serving post-firing letter, he could not “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.” But that same Constitution grants the president his lawful powers, whether it involves defending a sailor as Commander-in-Chief, firing an ambassador as chief diplomat, or ignoring the advice of a self-important NSC staffer in his role as the top national security decision maker.
If we face a constitutional crisis it is not the fault of President Trump but of the psychology that some people in government nurture that it is their job to see to it that the president fails in his office, that his decisions can safely be ignored, and that his presidency is fundamentally illegitimate. Spencer griped that the message the president was sending the troops was “that you can get away with things.” But Spencer was the one who tried to pull a fast one and failed. Meanwhile, anti-Trumpers in the government continue to frustrate the president’s policies.
The problem in our government is not too much Trump, but not enough accountability for those who self-righteously hide behind the Constitution that they are undermining. The president should really get back to saying “you’re fired.”
Chris Farrell is director of investigations and research for Judicial Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group. He previously worked as a counterintelligence case officer.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.