Navy Wants to Eject From SEALs a Sailor Cleared by Trump, Officials Say - The New York Times


Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher is expected to be formally notified of the action on Wednesday.

Credit...Gregory Bull/Associated Press

The Navy SEAL at the center of a high-profile war crimes case has been ordered to appear before Navy leaders Wednesday morning, and is expected to be notified that the Navy intends to oust him from the elite commando force, two Navy officials said on Tuesday.

The move could put the SEAL commander, Rear Adm. Collin Green, in direct conflict with President Trump, who last week cleared the sailor, Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, of any judicial punishment in the war crimes case. Military leaders opposed that action as well as Mr. Trump’s pardons of two soldiers involved in other murder cases.

Navy officials had planned to begin the process of taking away Chief Gallagher’s Trident pin, the symbol of his membership in the SEALs, earlier this month. But as he waited outside his commander’s office, Navy leaders sought clearance from the White House that never came, and no action was taken.

Admiral Green now has the authorization he needs from the Navy to act against Chief Gallagher, and the formal letter notifying the chief of the action has been drafted by the admiral, the two officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the impending action.

The Navy also plans to take the Tridents of three SEAL officers who oversaw Chief Gallagher — Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, Lt. Jacob Portier and Lt. Thomas MacNeil — and their letters have been drafted as well, one of the officials said.

Under Navy regulations, a SEAL’s Trident can be taken if a commander loses “faith and confidence in the service member’s ability to exercise sound judgment, reliability and personal conduct.” The Navy has removed 154 Tridents since 2011.

Removing a Trident does not entail a reduction in rank, but it effectively ends a SEAL’s career. Since Chief Gallagher and Lieutenant Portier both planned to leave the Navy soon in any case, the step would have little practical effect on them. But in a warrior culture that prizes honor and prestige, the rebuke would still cast the men out of a tight-knit brotherhood.

“To have a commander remove that pin after a guy has gone through so much to earn it, it is pretty much the worst thing you could do,” said Eric Deming, a retired senior chief who served 19 years in the SEALs. “You are having your whole identity taken away.”

“Why would they do it to someone like Gallagher?” said Mr. Deming, who is not involved in the case. “I think the leadership feels like they have lost the trust of the American people and want to rebuild it. So they are trying to show guys will be held accountable.”

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The move sets up a potential confrontation between Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly championed Chief Gallagher, and Admiral Green, who has said he intends to overhaul discipline and ethics in the SEAL teams and sees Chief Gallagher’s behavior as an obstacle.

One Navy official who spoke about the specifics of the action said the admiral was making the move knowing that it could end his career, but that he had the backing of Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, and Richard V. Spencer, the secretary of the Navy.

Asked about Admiral Gilday, his spokesman, Cmdr. Nate Christensen, said on Tuesday that the admiral “supports his commanders in executing their roles, to include Rear Admiral Green.”

Chief Gallagher’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said that punishing the chief after the president cleared him last week would amount to insubordination.

“Does Admiral Green have the authority to do it? Yes,” Mr. Parlatore said in a telephone interview. “But how tone-deaf is the guy? The commander in chief’s intent is crystal clear, that he wants Eddie left alone.”

Mr. Parlatore said he expected Mr. Trump to order the Navy to restore Chief Gallagher’s Trident if it is removed, and to dismiss Admiral Green from command.

Chief Gallagher has been at the center of a whipsaw war crimes case for more than a year. He was arrested and jailed in 2018 on war-crimes charges including shooting unarmed civilians in Iraq and killing a wounded teenage captive with a hunting knife. A military jury acquitted him in July of all the charges except a minor one of posing for a trophy photo with the captive’s corpse; for that crime, he was demoted and faced the possibility of further sanctions. Mr. Trump restored his rank on Friday.

“I had a feeling that it was coming because, you know, the president has shown the nation he was a man of his word,” Chief Gallagher said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “He knew a lot about all the injustices that went on through this whole ordeal I went through.”

Navy officials contend that, independent of the criminal charges, Chief Gallagher’s behavior during and since the deployment has fallen below the standard of the SEALs. A Navy investigation uncovered evidence that he had been buying and using narcotics.

Since his acquittal, Chief Gallagher has trolled the Navy on social media, taunting the SEALs who testified against him; mocking one who wept as he told investigators about witnessing the stabbing of the captive; insulting the Naval Criminal Investigative Service; and calling top SEAL commanders, including Admiral Green, “a bunch of morons.”

The cases of Chief Gallagher and the three officers will be submitted to a review board, who will decide whether to follow the admiral’s recommendation that they be ejected from the force. The process, which can take several weeks, almost always results in the SEAL’s Trident being taken, according to Patrick Korody, a former Navy prosecutor.

“I’ve never seen anyone beat it,” he said. “In cases like this, I don’t know if you could find anyone who would go against the admiral’s recommendation.”

For all four men, the review board’s decision is likely to center on the allegations that Chief Gallagher committed murder during a 2017 deployment to Iraq.

In court testimony, multiple SEALs in his platoon said that they reported one killing the day it happened, and several times after that as well, but that the platoon commander, Lieutenant Portier, did not forward the report up the chain of command as required by regulations. Lieutenant Portier was criminally charged with failing to report the murder; he denied the charges, and they were dropped after Chief Gallagher was acquitted.

Commander Breisch was the troop commander over Chief Gallagher and Lieutenant Portier in Iraq. SEALs in the platoon testified that they told him repeatedly about the killings after the deployment, but were told to “decompress” and “let it go,” according to a Navy investigation. Commander Breisch was not charged.

Lieutenant MacNeil was the most junior officer in the platoon, and was one of the SEALs who reported Chief Gallagher for murder and testified at his trial. During the proceedings, though, it was revealed that Lieutenant MacNeil had done nothing to stop the chief from posing for a trophy photo with the head of the dead teenage captive he was accused of stabbing, and had posed for the photo as well. At trial it was also revealed that Lieutenant MacNeil had been drinking with enlisted SEALs in Iraq, in violation of regulations.

The president has the authority to stop or reverse any decision concerning the SEALs’ Tridents, according to Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. But for generations, he said, presidents have generally refrained from inserting themselves into the military’s personnel decisions.

“The president is the commander in chief; he could give orders about how to peel the potatoes in the chow hall if he wanted,” Mr. Fidell said. “The question is, should he?”

Regarding Chief Gallagher’s Trident, he said: “A reasonable observer could say this is a completely inappropriate intrusion into the military. If Trump saves his Trident — and I’d bet on it — I would say he will have driven the wedge ever deeper into an already divided military. And that can’t be helpful.”

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