Esper, who initially allowed the Navy to start a peer-review board for Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, which could have led to the removal of his SEAL status, said he had no other choice than to obey the president, who, according to the official, had a constitutional right to intervene.
“I can control what I can control,” Esper told reporters when asked about the message Trump is sending to U.S. troops when he interfered to end the Gallagher review.
“The president is the commander in chief. He has every right, authority, and privilege to do what he wants to do,” the defense secretary added.
Gallagher had been acquitted of murder and other charges in July by a military jury whereas several fellow SEAL colleagues testified he fatally stabbed in 2017 a detained Iraqi prisoner in the neck with a knife after the teenage fighter was brought to his outpost for medical treatment.
Trump got involved in the case in the spring after a former business partner to his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Bernard Kerik, became an advocate for Gallagher and made appearances in conservative media.
The SEAL had also included in his defense team a lawyer for the Trump real estate company, Marc Mukasey.
The president, who is therefore also the head of the army, has tweeted in support of Gallagher, praising the sailor’s work and saying the case was “handled very badly from the beginning.”
Trump then reestablished Gallagher to his rank earlier this month after he had been reduced in his military jury conviction.
Also, the president pardoned two other soldiers accused of war crimes; a former Army special forces soldier charged with murdering an Afghan man during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan and an Army officer who had been convicted for illegally ordering the fatal shootings of two men on motorcycles while on patrol in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.
These cases and especially the Gallagher case have raised questions about the proper role of a U.S. president when it comes to military justice. Some analysts, as well as officials, expressed concerns that such actions could compromise the reliability of the U.S. as a “leader in ethical and lawful behavior on the battlefield.”
“What concerns me the most is the chilling effect this will have on special forces’ willingness to report when they see illegal behavior,” retired Navy admira James Stavridis said in an email to The Associated Press. “That is tragic because in the end what separates us from our opponents on the battlefield is our willingness to follow the rule of law.”