SECNAV Richard V. Spencer Removed Over Gallagher Deal With White House; Modly Now Acting SECNAV

November 24, 2019 6:27 PM - Updated: November 24, 2019 9:11 PM
Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer speaks during an all-hands call onboard U.S. Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka on July 12, 2018. US Navy Photo

The secretary of defense asked Richard V. Spencer to step down as the Secretary of the Navy after Spencer proposed a deal to the White House that would guarantee Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Gallagher would retire as a SEAL, despite public statements affirming he would let the process dictate the outcome, according to a late Sunday Pentagon statement.

“Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has asked for the resignation of [Spencer] after losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House involving the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.
“Esper’s position with regard to UCMJ, disciplinary, and fitness for duty actions has always been that the process should be allowed to play itself out objectively and deliberately, in fairness to all parties.”

President Trump tweeted on Sunday evening that contracting reform and the Gallagher case were the reasons for Spencer’s removal.

“I was not pleased with the way that Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s trial was handled by the Navy. He was treated very badly but, despite this, was completely exonerated on all major charges. I then restored Eddie’s rank. Likewise, large cost overruns from past administration’s contracting procedures were not addressed to my satisfaction,” Trump tweeted.
“Therefore, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer’s services have been terminated by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. I thank Richard for his service & commitment. Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin. Admiral and now Ambassador to Norway Ken Braithwaite will be nominated by me to be the new Secretary of the Navy.”

The news of Spencer’s removal was first reported by The Washington Post.

Spencer’s resignation comes after President Donald Trump tweeted his displeasure over a process that could have stripped Gallagher of his status as a SEAL and his right to wear the vaunted Naval Special Warfare designation.

Under U.S. Navy personnel rules, an enlisted special operator’s rating can be revoked or changed through a personnel process that would strip the right of a sailor to wear the NSW warfare pin. A review board to consider Gallagher and Lt. Jacob Portier was ordered by Naval Special Warfare Commander Rear Adm. Collin Green for Dec. 2, reported by Navy Times.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted that the process should be stopped.

“The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!” Trump wrote.

Trump had previously voiced support for Gallagher at multiple points throughout the legal process that saw him face multiple charges, be found guilty of just one, have his rank reduced by the Navy and then restored by the president.

The Navy moved ahead with the review board process after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, Army Chief of Staff General McConville, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Sgt. Major of the Army Michael Grinston advised Trump to move along with the process during a late Thursday Air Force One flight.

Over the weekend, Spencer defended moving ahead with the board and process to review Gallagher’s status but, “given the events of the last few days, Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his Trident pin,” wrote Hoffman.

A spokesperson for Spencer referred USNI News to the Office of Secretary of Defense when contacted on Sunday.

In his resignation letter, Spencer wrote:

“Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect, l no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me. in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline. l cannot in good conscience obey an order that l believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family. my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he wrote.
“The President deserves and should expect a Secretary of the Navy who is aligned with his vision for the future of our force generation and sustainment. Therefore. with pride in the achievements we’ve shared, and everlasting faith in the continued service and lidelity of the finest Sailors, Marines and civilian teammates on earth. I hereby acknowledge my termination as United States Secretary of the Navy. to be effective immediately.”

As of Sunday, Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas Modly is now acting SECNAV, according to the statement.

Pentagon leadership is set to meet with Modly and Chief of Naval Operation Adm. Mike Gilday on Monday over next steps for the service.

Esper proposed that retired Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite, the current ambassador to Norway, serve as the next SECNAV.

Spencer came into the Navy Secretary job at a time that the service was trying to figure out its way forward under the National Defense Strategy. His business background was viewed as a positive, given that the Navy would be expected to do more with the same or less money, meaning that savvy business practices and a push for innovative processes would be a must.

Still, forcing change upon an institution as large and formal as the Navy has led to mixed success.

Spencer was sworn in as Navy Secretary on Aug. 3, 2017 – just weeks after USS Fitzgerald’s (DDG-62) deadly collision with a merchant ship and just 18 days before USS John S. McCain’s (DDG-56). Right off the bat, the secretary was forced to tackle Navy readiness issues, largely via his Strategic Readiness Review he tasked former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Defense Business Board Chairman Michael Bayer to conduct. Spencer latched onto the report’s discussion of the “normalization of deviation” – the idea that readiness and safety had been so eroded over time that the Navy forgot what right looked like – and used that notion to push reforms to boost safety rates, parts availability for repairs, maintenance timeliness and other related issues. The Navy has since pushed aviation readiness rates from below 50-percent in some cases to about 80-percent of fighters in the inventory being mission capable. Ship maintenance and readiness, though, continues to lag.

Spencer has advocated bringing business lessons into the Navy world, particularly as it relates to aviation readiness and the incorporation of technologies like additive manufacturing. He took on cyber as a key challenge for the Navy, conducting a cyber review and proposing the creation of the job of assistant secretary of the Navy for cybersecurity. Spencer also sought more industry-like business practices to keep costs down and remain competitive, including ideas like purchasing two aircraft carriers in a contract designed to save billions of dollars for the Navy and create more workload stability for industry.

Though the two-carrier contract was a win for the Navy under Spencer’s leadership, the Ford-class carrier program overall has been a struggle for him. In January, at a think tank event he said he had spoken to President Trump at length at the December 2018 Army-Navy football game, and the topic of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and its ongoing construction challenges with its weapons elevators came up.

“I asked him to stick his hand out; he stuck his hand out. I said, let’s do this like corporate America. I shook his hand and said, the elevators will be ready to go when she pulls out or you can fire me,” Spencer said, referring to Ford pulling out of the Newport News Shipbuilding yard after a post-shakedown availability that at the time was set to end in July. Ford ultimately left PSA in October without most of its elevators working.
“We’re going to get it done. I know I’m going to get it done. I haven’t been fired yet by anyone; being fired by the president really isn’t on the top of my list.”

More recently, as pressure built on Spencer when it became apparent that the elevator issues weren’t being resolved in a timely manner, Spencer publicly feuded with Newport News Shipbuilding and leadership of its parent company, Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Another hallmark of Spencer’s tenure was ongoing legal challenges within the service, related to both the Fat Leonard scandal and from the two destroyer collisions. Spencer wrote censure letters to a slew of retired captains and rear admirals from November 2017 through May of this year. The service also struggled with prosecuting cases against Fitzgerald and McCain officers, with undue command influence challenges among the other problems in the Navy’s approach. Ultimately, Spencer and former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered reviews of the Navy and Marine Corps judge advocate general community “to confirm the uniformed legal community is structurally and organizationally sound and best supporting the good order and discipline our integrated naval force,” after worries surrounding legal advice on the destroyer collision cases and the handling of the Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher case.

The following is the complete Sunday statement from the Pentagon.

Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper has asked for the resignation of Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer after losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House involving the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

After Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley spoke with the Commander in Chief on Friday regarding the case of Gallagher, Secretary Esper learned that Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin. When recently asked by Secretary Esper, Secretary Spencer confirmed that despite multiple conversations on the Gallagher matter, Secretary Esper was never informed by Secretary Spencer of his private proposal.

Secretary Esper’s position with regard to UCMJ, disciplinary, and fitness for duty actions has always been that the process should be allowed to play itself out objectively and deliberately, in fairness to all parties. However, at this point, given the events of the last few days, Secretary Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his Trident pin. Secretary Esper will meet with Navy Under Secretary (now Acting Secretary) Thomas [Modly] and the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday on Monday morning to discuss the way ahead.

“I am deeply troubled by this conduct shown by a senior DOD official.” said Secretary Esper. “Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position. I wish Richard well.”

Secretary Esper has proposed to the President that Ambassador Kenneth Braithwaite, current U.S. Ambassador to Norway and a retired Navy Rear Admiral, be considered as the next Secretary of the Navy.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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