WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Monday defended his decision to order the Navy to allow SEAL Edward Gallagher to retain his status in the elite force, despite criticism from Democrats about the intervention.
"I have to protect my war fighters," Trump said in the Oval Office a day after the top Navy official was ousted after expressing concern about the case. "I think what I'm doing is sticking up for our armed forces."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that Trump ordered Gallagher be allowed to retire without losing his status as a SEAL.
Gallagher was acquitted of stabbing a wounded Islamic State prisoner and firing on Iraqi civilians. But he was convicted of posing with the captive's corpse and was demoted. Trump reversed Gallagher's demotion this month, and the Navy announced it would review the case, which could have led to Gallagher's expulsion from the SEALs.
Democratic lawmakers blasted Trump for wading into the Gallagher case. Some expressed concern about the firing of U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. Esper demanded Spencer's resignation over his handling of the case.
"This was an outrageous, irresponsible interference by President Trump in the military justice system," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "The White House's handling of this matter erodes the basic command structure of the military."
Esper said Trump's verbal order, which he saidfollowed a tweet from the president last week, was the reason he announced over the weekend that Gallagher would be allowed to keep his Trident Pin, a symbol of his status as a Navy SEAL.
Trump has repeatedly argued that the case "was handled very badly from the beginning."
The internal conflict over the fate of Gallagher's status spilled into public view over the weekend when Esper demanded Spencer's resignation. Esper said he had lost "trust and confidence" in Spencer over the handling of the case.
More: Navy plans to strip SEAL's Trident, banish him from elite commando community
In a letter to Trump on Sunday, Spencer gave a different perspective on how the events unfolded.
Spencer said he could not in good conscience follow an order that he believed would undermine the principle of good order and discipline in the military - suggesting that he had been, or expected to be, ordered to stop a regular review process for Gallagher.
In announcing Sunday that he had dismissed Spencer, Esper said he acted after learning of Spencer's secret plan to guarantee the outcome of the Navy SEAL peer-review board that was scheduled to convene Dec. 2 to recommend whether Gallagher should be allowed to retain his Trident.
Read the letter: Richard Spencer's scathing final letter as Navy secretary
Spencer "proposed a deal whereby if the president allowed the Navy to handle the case, he would guarantee that Eddie Gallagher would be restored to rank, allowed to retain his Trident and permitted to retire," Esper said.
This was "completely contrary" to what Esper and the rest of the Pentagon leadership had agreed to, he said, and contrary to Spencer's public position that the Navy disciplinary process should be allowed to play out with no interference.
Esper said he had advocated for allowing the Navy peer-review board to go forward Dec. 2, but when Trump gave him a "verbal instruction" Sunday to stop the process, he did so.
"We also recognized that the commander in chief has certain constitutional rights and powers which he is free to exercise, as many presidents have done in the past," Esper said, according to a transcript of his remarks. "Again, these are constitutional powers."
Esper did not say whether he agreed or disagreed with Trump's order.
Once Trump gave the order, Esper said he responded, "Roger. I got it."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saturday, Esper called Trump to tell him he intended to fire Spencer, and Trump supported the decision.
Sunday afternoon, Esper called Spencer and told him he was being fired. Spencer "took it in stride" and said he would have a resignation letter to him within 30 minutes - "and he did."
In that letter, Spencer made no mention of what Esper called Spencer's secret deal with the White House.
Esper said it was best, under the extraordinary circumstances set in motion last week, that the Gallagher review board not proceed as planned. He said he believes in the military justice system, but in this case, it had become untenable.
"As professional as they are," he said of the board members, "no matter what they would decide, they would be criticized from many sides, which would further drag this issue on, dividing the institution. I want the SEALs and the Navy to move beyond this now, fully focused on their war fighting mission."
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mark Esper says Trump ordered that SEAL Edward Gallagher keep status