Defense secretary says Trump ordered him to allow SEAL in war crimes case to keep status

Access to the comments Comments
By Dartunorro Clark and Courtney Kube  with NBC News Politics
Image: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper delivers remarks before ringing
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper delivers remarks before ringing the closing NASDAQ bell for Veterans Day in New York on Nov. 11, 2019.   -  Copyright  Lisa Ferdinando DoD via Reuters file

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that President Donald Trump directed him to allow a Navy SEAL acquitted of war crimes to retire without losing his elite status.

Esper told reporters during a Pentagon briefing that Trump gave him a direct order to drop disciplinary action against Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, who was prosecuted by the Navy and later acquitted of war crimes. The decision means Gallagher will be allowed to retire without losing his gold eagle Trident emblem, which signifies that a service member is part of one of the Navy's elite Special Warfare Navy Sea, Air and Land units, or SEALs.

Gallagher's case created friction between Trump and the Navy and led to the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. Trump frequently spoke out about the case, accusing the department of mishandling disciplinary action against Gallagher.

Gallagher, a decorated officer and 19-year veteran, was accused of fatally stabbing a young wounded fighter for the Islamic State militant group, posing for a picture with the corpse and shooting two civilians from a sniper's perch in Iraq in 2017.

A military jury acquitted Gallagher of murder and war crimes charges in July but convicted him of having posed with the corpse of the teenage ISIS fighter. Consequently, he was demoted from chief petty office to petty officer first class. Then, earlier this month, Trump reversed the order, reinstating Gallagher as a chief petty officer.

Trump has also intervened in other high-profile murder cases involving U.S. service members, dismissing charges against a Green Beret accused of killing an Afghan man, pardoning a former Army officer serving 19 years for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan men.