A tense showdown is still in progress between President Donald Trump and top military commanders over who should be in charge of enforcing discipline among the rank and file. Trump was known as a micromanager long before he entered the presidency, but that was limited to his field of expertise: the resort and real estate business. When it comes to the military, Trump is way out of his depth and should allow the professionals to do their jobs.
At issue are disciplinary measures, including courts-martial, against several Special Operations service members accused of egregious offenses. A particularly contentious case involves Navy Special Warfare Operator Eddie Gallagher, a SEAL who was acquitted of murder charges but found guilty on other counts of violating law of war requirements. He was fined and demoted.
Despite requests from top military commanders not to intervene, Trump pardoned Gallagher. Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week said he had “robust” conversations with Trump on the subject and, though Esper wouldn’t discuss specifics on what he told the president, he said he has “full confidence in the military justice system.” But over the weekend, he told Navy Secretary Richard Spencer to resign over his handling of the Gallagher case.
The complaint among commanders is that rank-and-file discipline breaks down when the military justice system is short-circuited. Trump’s intervention has humiliated commanders and given Gallagher such a sense of impunity that he has openly mocked his commanders online and on Fox News.
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In hopes of restoring a sense of “good order and discipline,” the SEALs commander, Rear Adm. Collin Green, signed orders last week advancing the process of revoking Gallagher’s coveted SEALs trident. The White House raised no objections. Green signed three other letters referring the cases of other SEAL officers who supervised Gallagher to military review boards.
Trump stayed quiet until a Fox News commentator urged him to get involved. Then he intervened by tweet Thursday, saying, “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!”
Green appeared ready to sacrifice his own career if necessary to drive home the point that he and other top commanders be allowed to do their jobs without being second-guessed by a president with no military experience who avoided the draft during Vietnam. This is the honorable course of action by a military commander who understands the damage that can occur if the president openly encourages rank-and-file service members to defy commanders and ignore the law.
So far, the Pentagon does not regard tweets as official commands and has been awaiting specific written orders from the White House not to proceed with action against Gallagher. Green and Spencer were right to take a stand. The commander in chief should heed the advice of military professionals and let commanders do their jobs.