Trump’s Intervention in SEALs Case Tests Pentagon’s Tolerance
He was limp and dusty from an explosion, conscious but barely. A far cry from the fierce, masked Islamic State fighters who once seized vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, the captive was a scraggly teenager in a tank top with limbs so thin that his watch slid easily off his wrist.
Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher and other Navy SEALs gave the young captive medical aid that day in Iraq in 2017, sedating him and cutting an airway in his throat to help him breathe. Then, without warning, according to colleagues, Chief Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck.
The same Chief Gallagher who later posed for a photograph holding the dead captive up by the hair has now been celebrated on the campaign trail by President Trump, who upended the military code of justice to protect him from the punishment resulting from the episode. Prodded by Fox News, Mr. Trump has made Chief Gallagher a cause célèbre, trumpeting him as an argument for his re-election.
The violent encounter in a faraway land opened a two-year affair that would pit a Pentagon hierarchy wedded to longstanding rules of combat and discipline against a commander in chief with no experience in uniform but a finely honed sense of grievance against authority. The highest ranks in the Navy insisted Chief Gallagher be held accountable. Mr. Trump overruled the chain of command and the secretary of the Navy was fired.
The case of the president and a commando accused of war crimes offers a lesson in how Mr. Trump presides over the armed forces three years after taking office. While he boasts of supporting the military, he has come to distrust the generals and admirals who run it. Rather than accept information from his own government, he responds to television reports that grab his interest. Warned against crossing lines, he bulldozes past precedent and norms.
As a result, the president finds himself more removed than ever from a disenchanted military command, adding the armed forces to the institutions under his authority that he has feuded with, along with the intelligence community, law enforcement agencies and diplomatic corps.
“We’re going to take care of our warriors and I will always stick up for our great fighters,” Mr. Trump told a rally in Florida as he depicted the military hierarchy as part of “the deep state” he vowed to dismantle. “People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.”
The president’s handling of the case has distressed active-duty and retired officers and the civilians who work closely with them. Mr. Trump’s intervention, they said, emboldens war criminals and erodes the order of a professional military.
“He’s interfering with the chain of command, which is trying to police its own ranks,” said Peter D. Feaver, a specialist on civilian-military relations at Duke University and former aide to President George W. Bush. “They’re trying to clean up their act and in the middle of it the president parachutes in — and not from information from his own commanders but from news talking heads who are clearly gaming the system.”
Chris Shumake, a former sniper who served in Chief Gallagher’s platoon, said in an interview that he was troubled by the impact the president’s intervention could have on the SEALs.
“It’s blown up bigger than any of us could have ever expected, and turned into a national clown show that put a bad light on the teams,” said Mr. Shumake, speaking publicly for the first time. “He’s trying to show he has the troops’ backs, but he’s saying he doesn’t trust any of the troops or their leaders to make the right decisions.”
Chief Gallagher, who has denied any wrongdoing, declined through his lawyer to be interviewed. Mr. Trump’s allies said the president was standing up to political correctness that hamstrings the warriors the nation asks to defend it, as if war should be fought according to lawyerly rules.
“From the beginning, this was overzealous prosecutors who were not giving the benefit of the doubt to the trigger-pullers,” Pete Hegseth, a weekend host of “Fox & Friends” who has promoted Chief Gallagher to the president both on the telephone and on air, said this past week. “That’s what the president saw.”
‘No One Touch Him. He’s Mine.’
Chief Gallagher, 40, a seasoned operator with a deeply weathered face from eight combat deployments, sometimes went by the nickname Blade. He sought out the toughest assignments, where gunfire and blood were almost guaranteed. Months before deploying, he sent a text to the SEAL master chief making assignments, saying he was “down to go” to any spot, no matter how awful, so long as “there is for sure action and work to be done.”
“We don’t care about living conditions,” he added. “We just want to kill as many people as possible.”
Before deployment, he commissioned a friend and former SEAL to make him a custom hunting knife and a hatchet, vowing in a text, “I’ll try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull!”
He was in charge of 22 men in SEAL Team 7’s Alpha Platoon, which deployed to Mosul, Iraq, in early 2017. But his platoon was nowhere near the action, assigned an “advise and assist” mission supporting Iraqi commandos doing the block-by-block fighting. The SEALs were required to stay 1,000 meters behind the front lines.
That changed on May 6, 2017, when an Apache helicopter banked over a dusty patchwork of fields outside Mosul, fixed its sights on a farmhouse serving as an Islamic State command post and fired two Hellfire missiles reducing it to rubble.
Chief Gallagher saw the distant explosion from an armored gun truck. When he heard on the radio that Iraqi soldiers had captured an Islamic State fighter and took him to a nearby staging area, he raced to the scene. “No one touch him,” he radioed other SEALs. “He’s mine.”
‘Got Him With My Hunting Knife’
When the captive was killed, other SEALs were shocked. A medic inches from Chief Gallagher testified that he froze, unsure what to do. Some SEALs said in interviews that the stabbing immediately struck them as wrong, but because it was Chief Gallagher, the most experienced commando in the group, no one knew how to react. When senior platoon members confronted Chief Gallagher, they said, he told them, “Stop worrying about it; they do a lot worse to us.”
The officer in charge, Lt. Jacob Portier, who was in his first command, gathered everyone for trophy photos, then held a re-enlistment ceremony for Chief Gallagher over the corpse, several SEALs testified.
A week later, Chief Gallagher sent a friend in California a text with a photo of himself with a knife in one hand, holding the captive up by the hair with the other. “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife,” he wrote.
As the deployment wore on, SEALs said the chief’s behavior grew more erratic. He led a small team beyond the front lines, telling members to turn off locator beacons so they would not be caught by superiors, according to four SEALS, who confirmed video of the mission obtained by The New York Times. He then tried to cover up the mission when one platoon member was shot.
At various points, he appeared to be either amped up or zoned out; several SEALs told investigators they saw him taking pills, including the narcotic Tramadol. He spent much of his time scanning the streets of Mosul from hidden sniper nests, firing three or four times as often as the platoon’s snipers, sometimes targeting civilians.
One SEAL sniper told investigators he heard a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then saw a schoolgirl in a flower-print hijab crumple to the ground. Another sniper reported hearing a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then seeing a man carrying a water jug fall, a red blotch spreading on his back. Neither episode was investigated and the fate of the civilians remains unknown.
Chief Gallagher had been accused of misconduct before, including shooting through an Afghan girl to hit the man carrying her in 2010 and trying to run over a Navy police officer in 2014. But in both cases no wrongdoing was found.
SEALs said they reported concerns to Lieutenant Portier with no result. The lieutenant outranked Chief Gallagher but was younger and less experienced. SEALs said in interviews that the chief often yelled at his commanding officer or disregarded him altogether. After the deployment, Lieutenant Portier was charged with not reporting the chief for war crimes but charges were dropped. So SEALs said they started firing warning shots to keep pedestrians out of range. One SEAL told investigators he tried to damage the chief’s rifle to make it less accurate.
By the end of the deployment, SEALs said, Chief Gallagher was largely isolated from the rest of the platoon, with some privately calling him “el diablo,” or the devil.
A Fox Contributor’s Cause
Chief Gallagher was reported by six fellow SEALs and arrested in September 2017, charged with nearly a dozen counts including murder and locked in the brig in San Diego to await his trial. He denied the charges and called those reporting him liars who could not meet his high standards, referring to them repeatedly in public as “the mean girls” and saying they sought to get rid of him.
David Shaw, a former SEAL who deployed with the platoon, said he saw no evidence of that. “All six were some of the best performers in the platoon,” he said, speaking publicly for the first time. “These were guys were hand-selected by the chief based on their skills and abilities, and they are guys of the highest character.”
Chief Gallagher’s case was already simmering on the conservative talk show circuit when another service member, Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, an Army Green Beret, was charged last winter with killing an unarmed man linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan. On Dec. 16, barely minutes after a segment on “Fox & Friends,” Mr. Trump took to Twitter to say he would review the case, repeating language from the segment.
In the tweet, Mr. Trump included the handle of Mr. Hegseth, who speaks regularly with the president and has been considered for top jobs in the administration. An Army veteran, Mr. Hegseth served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before heading two conservative veterans organizations “committed to victory on the battlefield,” as the biography for his speaker’s bureau puts it.
Upset at what he sees as “Monday morning quarterbacking” of soldiers fighting a shadowy enemy where “second-guessing was deadly,” Mr. Hegseth has for years defended troops charged with war crimes, including Chief Gallagher, Major Golsteyn and Lt. Clint Lorance, often appealing directly to the president on Fox News.
“These are men who went into the most dangerous places on earth with a job to defend us and made tough calls on a moment’s notice,” Mr. Hegseth said on Fox in May. “They’re not war criminals, they’re warriors, who have now been accused of certain things that are under review.”
Mr. Hegseth found a ready ally in Mr. Trump, a graduate of a military high school who avoided serving in Vietnam by citing bone spurs in his foot. Mr. Trump has long sought to identify himself with the toughest of soldiers and loves boasting of battlefield exploits to the point that he made up details of an account of a “whimpering” Islamic State leader killed in October.
In March, the president twice called Richard V. Spencer, the Navy secretary, asking him to release Chief Gallagher from pretrial confinement in a Navy brig, Mr. Spencer later wrote in The Washington Post. After Mr. Spencer pushed back, Mr. Trump made it an order.
By May, Mr. Trump prepared to pardon both Chief Gallagher and Major Golsteyn for Memorial Day, even though neither had yet faced trial. At the Pentagon, a conservative bastion where Fox News is the network of choice on office televisions, senior officials were aghast. They persuaded Mr. Trump to hold off. But that was not the end of the matter.
In June, Chief Gallagher appeared before a military jury of five Marines and two sailors in a two-week trial marred by accusations of prosecutorial misconduct. The medic who had been inches away from Chief Gallagher changed his story on the stand, claiming that he was the one who killed the captive.
In early July, the jury acquitted Chief Gallagher on all charges but one: posing for a trophy photo with a corpse. He was sentenced to the maximum four months in prison and demoted. Having already been confined awaiting trial, he walked out of the courtroom a free man.
“Congratulations to Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, his wonderful wife Andrea, and his entire family,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “You have been through much together. Glad I could help!”
The President Intervenes
In the months afterward, Chief Gallagher was feted on conservative talk shows. Mr. Hegseth spoke privately with Mr. Trump about the case.
As it happened, the president shares a lawyer with Chief Gallagher — Marc Mukasey, a former prosecutor representing Mr. Trump in proceedings against his company. Mr. Mukasey said he never discussed Chief Gallagher with anyone in the administration. “I have been religious about keeping matters separate,” he said.
Another person with ties to Mr. Trump who worked on Chief Gallagher’s case was Bernard B. Kerik, a New York City police commissioner under former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is now the president’s personal lawyer. Like Mr. Hegseth, Mr. Kerik repeatedly appeared on Fox News pleading Chief Gallagher’s case.
The much-investigated president saw shades of himself in the case — Chief Gallagher’s lawyers accused prosecutors of improprieties, a claim that advisers said resonated with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Spencer tried to head off further intervention. On Nov. 14, the Navy secretary sent a note to the president asking him not to get involved again. But Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, called to say Mr. Trump would order Chief Gallagher’s punishment reversed and his rank restored. In addition, he pardoned Major Golsteyn and Lieutenant Lorance.
“This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review,” Mr. Spencer wrote. “It was also a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
Mr. Spencer threatened to resign. The Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, also weighed in, arguing that the country’s standards of military justice protected American troops by setting those troops up as a standard around the world.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper took the complaints to the president. The Pentagon also sent an information packet to the White House describing the cases, including a primer on why there is a Uniform Code of Military Justice. Mr. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the president it was important to allow the process to go forward.
The Navy Secretary Fights and Loses
Caught in the middle was Rear Adm. Collin Green, who took command of the SEALs four days before Chief Gallagher was arrested. He made it a priority to restore what he called “good order and discipline” after a series of scandals, tightening grooming standards and banning unofficial patches with pirate flags, skulls, heads on pikes and other grim symbols used to denote rogue cliques, similar to motorcycle gangs.
For Admiral Green, the Gallagher case posed a challenge because after his acquittal, the chief regularly undermined the SEAL command, appearing without authorization on Fox News and insulting the admiral and other superiors on social media as “a bunch of morons.”
The admiral wanted to take Chief Gallagher’s Trident pin, casting him out of the force. He called both Mr. Spencer and the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, and said he understood the potential backlash from the White House, but in nearly all cases SEALs with criminal convictions had their Tridents taken.
Both Mr. Spencer and Admiral Gilday agreed the decision was his to make and said they would defend his call. Mr. Esper briefed Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on Nov. 19 and the next day the Navy established a review board of fellow enlisted SEALs to decide the question.
But a day later, an hour after the chief’s lawyer blasted the decision on Fox News, the president stepped in again. “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”
Three days later, Mr. Spencer was fired, faulted by Mr. Esper for not telling him about an effort to work out a deal with the White House to allow the Navy process to go forward.
In an interview with Mr. Hegseth this past week, Chief Gallagher thanked Mr. Trump for having his back. “He keeps stepping in and doing the right thing,” the chief said. “I want to let him know the rest of the SEAL community is not about this right now. They all respect the president.”