When the military should tell the president no

When the military should tell the president no
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I grew up in a generations-deep military family. In 2016, scores of the military families to which I am connected voted for Donald Trump, in part because they felt that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton Democrats plot new approach to win over rural voters The Memo: Sanders-Warren battle could reshape Democratic primary Rosenstein says he authorized release of Strzok-Page texts MORE and her supporters had demeaned them. They had fought the Cold War but felt that the Clinton clan and their advisers had allowed China to win, particularly as they saw their own middle-class opportunities rolled back and their jobs off-shored to Asia. 

They voted for Trump because they felt he supported them and their deeply held ideals of patriotism and national service, had honored them as good and right. Generations of stories of soldiers doing good in the world are what have kept these struggling families going and continuing to serve.

But, now, something has disturbed the force. 

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Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher “pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck,” according to a New York Times report on the killing of a “limp and dusty” malnourished ISIS teenager in Iraq in 2017. Gallagher then held the dead captive by the hair and posed for a photograph. He was acquitted of all charges except the crime of posing for that photo. 

Many critics and Gallagher’s lawyers have disputed whether the conduct of the investigation of Gallagher and of the military police were appropriate. Gallagher’s brother, for example, has reported that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service compelled the Navy SEAL’s young children onto a San Diego street at gunpoint, in their underwear, when Gallagher was not home.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE has embraced the Gallagher case, ordering the Navy to allow him to retire with his benefits, his rank and his Navy SEAL Trident.  

Fearing that the code of military justice and the sense of esprit de corps — among the SEALs, but also among those serving in the military more broadly — could be severely damaged by White House intervention in this case, the military and civilian command staff of the Navy counseled the White House against its intervention. 

Unexpectedly, I found myself with one of the leading figures in this drama, former Marine and Trump-appointed Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, at the Halifax International Security Forum as these events unfolded two weekends ago. I spoke with Spencer a number of times, formally at press huddles and informally, and I had the sense of him as a deeply thoughtful public servant working hard to follow the appropriate commands, in substance and in process, of his commander in chief while respecting the time-honored, vital process of peer review and judgment inside military ranks.

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Spencer was doing what his job — and his loyalty, both to the Constitution and to the president — required him to do. First, he counseled President Trump to respect the process then under way. Messing with that process, he explained, would create the impression that the White House was privileging dishonorable military conduct in the field over those who have served, and who have been wounded and killed while doing it right. At the same time, Spencer told a gathered group of journalists that he would follow the orders of the president, even if it disrupted the process and even if ordered to allow Gallagher to keep his Trident. But those orders had to be officially transferred, he said. The president had tweeted his preferences, but no official orders had been issued, according to the Navy secretary.

Spencer did not recognize a tweet as an order. Two years ago, again at the Halifax International Security Forum, I interviewed Strategic Air Command’s Gen. John Hyten, and I got a similar sort of reply. In that command, Gen. Hyten would be the last person to whom a president would speak before launching a nuclear attack, and I asked if he had thought that through. Gen. Hyten told me he would refuse to follow an “illegal” order to fire nuclear weapons. 

To me, Spencer’s expectation that an order of such import should be appropriately sent, rather that tweeted, and Hyten’s precondition to not end life on this planet as we know it via an illegal order, reflect the big, omnipresent sense of right and wrong that I grew up with among my extended military “family.”

It is what leads military personnel and civilians to pause every day at 5 p.m. on every U.S. military base — regardless of who you are or what you are doing — to salute the call to reveille as the U.S. flag is lowered. It is what’s behind the social contract of the salute of superior officers by subordinate ones. It is the reason that a folded American flag is offered to grieving spouses or parents at a military funeral. 

Spencer’s and Hyten’s stands reflect the kind of honor, justice and doing what is right that millions of military families celebrate in the stories they hand down, generation to generation.

Spencer should not have been fired by Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Senate Dems urge Esper to oppose shifting Pentagon money to border wall Overnight Defense: GAO finds administration broke law by withholding Ukraine aid | Senate opens Trump trial | Pentagon to resume training Saudi students soon MORE, and essentially by President Trump. The official explanation — that Spencer was terminated because he was dealing directly with the White House, and not Esper — is vacuous. Esper should want his service secretaries to solve problems, to find the right equilibrium between an erratic president and military justice. Besides, I witnessed the White House calling Spencer directly. Why wasn’t it calling Esper? 

The Defense secretary and the president should have kept honor and service inside the tent. The Gallagher case, for some, is not black and white — but the underlying acts have created a crisis of conscience for many current and retired service people. 

Richard Spencer called me after his firing and, in a voice both confident but of humorous disbelief, said: “Well, boy was I was wrong. I guess a tweet is an order.”

None of us should accept that. While we may all be flawed, the system of values and codes that we have built over hundreds of years has to be better than us. 

The president needs a better North Star on military service and what it means deep in the core of those who have served and those who respect them. What he did in this case undermines trust and justice within the ranks.

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @SCClemons.