Transcript

Remarks by Secretary Esper in a Press Gaggle

Nov. 25, 2019
Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper

STAFF: This is going to be on the record, obviously off-camera. We'll take a handful of questions afterward. And then anything as far as timeline specifics, you can follow up with Jonathan and I afterwards. We also want to keep it on-topic. We've had to push back his schedule, like, two hours today to do this, so just on topic.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Okay? Good morning, everyone. I'm going to read a long statement, and then we'll -- because I want to get the -- some things out to you, and then we'll take the Q&A.

As you all know, yesterday, I asked Secretary of the Navy Spencer for his resignation, and I received it.

The reason behind this request was simple. There are some basic rules that I was taught to live by during my time in the military. Many in the civilian world also abide by these same rules. When followed, these rules help make for more effective, cohesive and trusting teams. These rules are very straight forward and fairly well-known.

First, we have a chain of command that should be followed and that chain of command must be kept informed.

Second, once we agree on a position we stick to it and support it both in private and public.

Third, if you don't like that position then simply resign, otherwise implement it as if you would implement any other order. 

Fourth, we don't discuss sensitive internal deliberations.

And, fifth, we are responsible for our organizations and whatever they say and do or don't say and don't do.

Secretary Spencer broke these rules, and thus lost my trust and confidence.

Contrary to the narrative that some want to put forward in the media, this dismissal is not about Eddie Gallagher. It's about Secretary Spencer and the chain of command.

When I met with the Army and Navy leadership a couple weeks back to discuss the cases of Lieutenant Lorance, Major Golsteyn and Chief Gallagher, we affirmed our support for the UCMJ in allowing processes to play themselves out. We also recognized that the commander in chief has certain constitutional rights and powers which he is free to exercise. As many presidents have done in the past. Again, these are constitutional powers.

Over the past few weeks, I spoke with the president on several occasions about these cases. I returned from an eight-day trip from Asia on Thursday night, and met with the president on Friday. I was joined by General Milley. We discussed many issues, including these cases.

Our position about allowing processes to play out remain unchanged and consistent with what we agreed to previously with Army and Navy leadership. 

After the meeting, we learned that several days prior, Secretary Spencer had proposed a deal whereby if the president allowed the Navy to handle the case, he would guarantee that Eddie Gallagher would be restored to rank, allowed to retain his trident and permitted to retire.

This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to, and contrary to Secretary Spencer's public position. Chairman Milley and I were completely caught off-guard by this information, and realized that it had undermined everything we had been discussing with the president. It had broken the rules that I mentioned earlier.

I immediately called Secretary Spencer about this matter. He was completely forthright in admitting what had been going on. I spoke with the president late Saturday, informed him that I had lost trust and confidence in Secretary Spencer, and I was going to ask for Spencer's resignation. The president supported this decision.

On Sunday afternoon, I called Secretary Spencer and asked for his resignation, and then explained the reasons why, which were consistent with what I just laid out to all of you. He took it in stride and said that he would have a letter to me within 30 minutes, and he did.

I called Acting Secretary Modly and CNO Admiral Gilday and informed them. The three of us met this morning to discuss this matter in more detail and to chart the way ahead. These two men are capable leaders and I am confident in their ability to lead the Navy.

We all agreed the department must move beyond the issue of any one individual and focus on the institution and the mission.

The case of Eddie Gallagher has dragged on for months, and it's distracting too many. It must end. Eddie Gallagher will retain his trident as the commander in chief directed, and will retire at the end of this month.

It is also my view that while I believe strongly in process, the issue should not now be thrown into the laps of a board of senior NCOs to sort out. As professional as they are, no matter what they would decide, they would be criticized from many sides, which would further drag this issue on, dividing the institution.

I want the SEALs and the Navy to move beyond this now and get fully focused on their warfighting mission. And I also want them focused on resetting their professional standards, ethics and conduct. These two issues are related. I know the service has plans to address this head-on.

On this last point, I want to note that I visited with General Rich Clarke at SOCOM two to three months ago. He and I had a long discussion, which I raised, about the professional ethics and standards in the special ops community. This is an ongoing discussion, and I have great confidence in him and the special ops leadership to do the right thing.

Finally, I asked the DOD general counsel this morning to review how the department educates and trains our service members about wartime ethics and the laws of armed conflict, and how we monitor, investigate, report and adjudicate our adherence to them. I look forward to his findings and his recommendations.

So if folks want to criticize anyone at this point about reaching down into the administrative processes, then simply blame me. I'm responsible at this point. It's not where I prefer to be, but I'll own it.

Let me finish where I began. I asked for Secretary Spencer's resignation because of the loss in trust and confidence after what transpired these last several days. I met with my senior staff this morning, after meeting with Acting Secretary Modly and Admiral Gilday, and had a good discussion about this matter.

My bottom-line message was straightforward: Follow the rules, abide by the norms we all grew up with, stick to the principles that make for an effective institution, honor the chain of command and focus on the mission.

Thank you.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you said that...

STAFF: Bob ?

Q: You said that President Trump directed that Gallagher retain his trident. Is that why you decided, because you were following an order from the president, that he retain the trident, or...

SEC. ESPER: The president has -- I spoke with the president on Sunday. He gave me the order that Eddie will -- Gallagher will retain his trident.

Q: I wanted to know if you consider that a -- an order?

SEC. ESPER: Yes, absolutely.

Q: Okay.

Q: Sir, to follow that up...

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Follow the process.

(Laughter.)

Q: Okay. Just to follow up on the broader issue, and this is not to put you in a situation to comment on the president directly, but, as Bob said, he directed you on this occasion. And the idea of an order -- is a tweet considered an order?

SEC. ESPER: Look, the president gave me a verbal instruction to do this.

Q: In this case, yes. Speaking more broadly, though, is that something that you would have to examine for the future?

SEC. ESPER: I don't like to speculate on hypotheticals this way.

At the end of the day, I get instructions, sometimes through senior White House staff. I hear it in different ways. And in most of the cases, depending on the type of order, it's always followed up with written guidance. That's how we do things. There has to be an historical record, if you will. And it all depends.

And this is -- in any number of things, I can -- sorry -- examples I can -- I can give you. But I'm not going to, you know...

Q: But it is, kind of, confusing. On the one hand, you're saying Spencer didn't follow the process. He tried to do this compromise. 

On the other hand, you say it's important...

SEC. ESPER: I don't think it's very confusing at all, but go ahead.

Q: No, no, but on the other hand, you say you should follow the process, but the process is not being followed. The review board will not meet. The president jumped in on this and said basically he's going to keep his trident pin; there will be no review board. Is that the right message to send to the troops?

SEC. ESPER: I -- I can control what I can control. I'm the secretary of defense; I'm responsible for the department.

My view is, we will follow our processes. That is what we agreed to, as leadership, to follow the processes. That is the position I took to the White House, follow the processes.

The president is the commander in chief. He has every right, authority and privilege to do what he wants to do.

Q: Order you to basically make sure he has a trident pin?

SEC. ESPER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Q: But what message does that send to the troops, that basically you're pulling the plug on -- on a review board?

SEC. ESPER: The president -- the president is the commander in chief.

Q: I have two questions.

First, there were other Navy SEALs that were supposed to go through this review board. Are they still going to go through this review board?

SEC. ESPER: So the CNO and Acting Secretary Modly and I spoke about this this morning. I -- I told them to come back to me with a recommendation, so I don't have anything further on you -- for you at this time.

Q: Okay.

STAFF: Dave ?

Q: And what about...

SEC. ESPER: Any (inaudible) it would not be about.

Q: And what about the letter, the letter of -- that was presented as the Secretary Spencer resignation letter? Is it the letter you received? Can you publish it?

SEC. ESPER: (inaudible)

STAFF: The -- the Navy will release it if they haven't already. We'll -- we'll get it for.

Q: Yes, please.

Q: Mr. Secretary, this letter by Secretary Spencer clearly wasn't written in 30 minutes, so this had been sitting on his desk for some time. And in it he says he could not, in good conscience, carry out this order. Did he ever tell you that if he were to receive that order he would not, in good conscience, be able to carry it out?

SEC. ESPER: Yes, he told me that he would likely, probably -- I don't want to put exact words in his mouth, but he certainly indicated he was probably going to resign if had to do this.

Q: So the question is did you fire...

SEC. ESPER: This -- this was Thursday or so.

Q: That was as of Thursday. Did -- did you fire him before he could resign?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I -- I -- I don't know about that. I -- like I said, I wasn't calculating a timing thing.

All I said is based on the events that I just laid out to you, I lost -- lost trust and confidence when I found that this secret proposal was happening; that somehow the fact we had all agreed and supported the process -- that he was willing to undermine this process; that if that deal had been consummated, if you will, somebody would have to compromise their integrity in the chain of command, and I wasn't willing to put that on anybody, so...

Q: Did he ever explain to you how he was going to rig this...

SEC. ESPER: No.

Q: ... review board?

SEC. ESPER: I asked and I'd never got an answer.

STAFF: Luis, ABC ?

Q: So you said that you spoke with the president on Saturday night and...

SEC. ESPER: Saturday and Sunday.

Q: On Saturday you explained to him that you were going to ask for his resignation.

SEC. ESPER: Yup.

Q: Then on Sunday the president contacted you and instructed you to have Gallagher keep his trident pin?

SEC. ESPER: Let me, kind of, get -- I talked to the president once or twice on Saturday. I had been in contact with my internal office leadership and General Milley. I informed the president about that.

I can't recall whether we talked the pin on Saturday, which is why I'm trying to be very factual with you. I recall for certain on Sunday, when I talked to the president to update him on the situation where he said, "What about the pin? I want Eddie's -- " He wanted Eddie Gallagher's pin restored, and I said, "Roger, I got it."

Q: And did here he lay out the same reasons, the same rationale that you just did for why the -- he should keep his pin and the whole thing should come to an end?

SEC. ESPER: The -- the -- I think the president has said what he said: that he pardoned Gallagher and Gallagher -- that -- that didn't come with caveats.

Q: But he didn't sort of -- thanks.

SEC. ESPER: I'm sorry. I don't want to get -- yeah, I don't want to get the -- the word -- the verbs matter here, and I didn't -- you're right.

He didn't pardon Gallagher, but his view was to...

Q: Sir, Gallagher was never pardoned...

SEC. ESPER: Yeah. I -- I don't what the right verb, but thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Q: Thanks, sir.

Talking from an outsider's perspective, though, can you agree it doesn't make sense that Secretary Spencer would be dismissed for working to get an -- like, the end result, the trident pin still with Gallagher? But then his letter seems to suggest that he was resigning on principle because he didn't want to take the order to remove it. It makes no sense.

SEC. ESPER: I -- I can't -- I -- right.

(Laughter.)

I can't -- I -- this is my issue with trust and confidence. I cannot reconcile the personal statements, with the public statements, with the written word, and that's why I lost trust and confidence. Because I and General Milley and others had been acting on good faith and confidence with regard to the -- the -- the rules and the agreement we set forth, and then to find out that for some matter of time our position was being undermined, and that at some point in time somebody might be asked to -- in their chain of command might be asked to compromise their integrity and bend the rules. 

My view is -- has been let the process play itself out. If that board of NCOs had come up with a different reason, who was going to be asked to change it? And that's my issue.

Q: And just to follow up, I mean, this sets a strange precedent. How do you keep the next SEAL who is unhappy with the Navy's -- Department of Navy determination from doing this exact same thing and putting the department in this same uncomfortable position?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I don't know -- I'm not fluent in the Navy's procedures on this matter. I'm going to assume that there's some type of appeals process, if you will.

But I think these are all the things we need to look at to make sure that there is a fair process for everybody, for all the stakeholders. Okay?

STAFF: Dan ?

Q: Related, complementary question, sir.

SEC. ESPER: Complementary with an e or an i?

(Laughter.)

Q: Go with an e. Questions aren't usually complimentary with an i, right?

We're talking about the other three SEALs.

SEC. ESPER: Yes.

Q: There's also the issue of Golsteyn's special forces tab, Golsteyn's Silver Star or Service Cross...

SEC. ESPER: We'll take those one step at a time, Dan. Right now I'm...

Q: Is the Army looking at that?

SEC. ESPER: ... today I'm gonna -- today, I'm gonna -- we're just talking about Gallagher and we'll focus on Gallagher today, okay?

STAFF: Jennifer?

Q: Secretary Esper, when Secretary Spencer spoke at Halifax and said that he had -- said publicly that he had not threatened to resign when there were multiple people saying that he had, was that untrue as far as you know?

SEC. ESPER: Secretary Spencer had said to me that he was -- again, I don't -- want to put the right whatever in front of it -- likely, probably going to resign if he was forced to -- or whatever, to award the trident or retain the trident, whatever the right word. So it was conveyed to me. I had every reason to believe that he was going to resign; that it was a threat to resign.

Q: So that was not true, what he said publicly?

SEC. ESPER: Not in terms of what I heard him tell me.

STAFF: Last question, Courtney ?

Q: When and how did you...

SEC. ESPER: It just gets to trust and confidence.

Q: When and how did you find out about this secret proposal? And who at the White House was he trying to broker it with?

And can you also say -- it was pretty uncommon in the statement that you named Admiral Braithwaite as the -- your likely recommendation. It seems that the recommendations tend to go to the White House and then the White House makes the announcement of who's going to -- tell if you -- if I've got the process (right ?).

SEC. ESPER: Well, let me -- you've got three questions there, so...

Q: Yes.

SEC. ESPER: ... what was the first one?

Q: When and how did you find out about the secret proposal, and who was the secretary...

SEC. ESPER: I found out the -- as I -- General Milley and I walked out of the Oval Office, and met with -- I'm not going to give names in terms of -- but it was a senior White House official who pulled us aside and said -- I'm paraphrasing -- Oh, by the way, did you know that -- and then told me what had happened, that this -- that this proposal had been brought by Secretary Spencer.

And we had no knowledge whatsoever. We were flabbergasted by it and quite surprised and caught completely off-guard, as I said.

Q: And then the Braithwaite component? I mean, obviously, to name him so quickly as your recommendation, it's uncommon. Usually the White House comes out and those are secret or quiet, behind the scenes. And to have a name so quickly in mind, can you talk a little bit about that, how you...

SEC. ESPER: You know, I'm always trying to think of chain of command and succession and things like that. And so, Ken Braithwaite is somebody I've known for quite some time. I think he'd be very capable. It's my recommendation to the president. I'm always available to present a variety of options.

So I think he's capable, I think it's important to give some type of recommendation to the president.

Q: Do you expect he'll be the president's nominee?

SEC. ESPER: I'm -- I'm not going to speak for the president.

STAFF: Thanks, guys. We've got to wrap up.

SEC. ESPER: Okay? Thanks, everyone.

Q: Thank you