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How Navy Secretary Richard Spencer's Ouster Will Affect Civil-Military Relations


What exactly happened over the weekend with Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and a Navy SEAL war crimes case depends on who you ask. Spencer, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and President Trump have all offered differing accounts. What is not in dispute - Spencer is out after the president personally intervened and ordered the Pentagon not to remove a Navy SEAL from the elite unit, which raises questions about what lines may have been crossed when the commander in chief decided to wade into the military's legal system.

David Lapan served more than 30 years as a Marine. He worked as a spokesman for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. And he is here now. Colonel Lapan, welcome.

DAVID LAPAN: Thank you.

KELLY: So the SEAL in question is Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher. He was convicted of posing for photos with the body of an ISIS captive. The question was what the Navy would do about it. How unusual is it for a president to insert himself in an internal Navy personnel process?

LAPAN: It's highly unusual. Again, normally the president as commander in chief is involved in wide-ranging personnel policies affecting the entire force, things like transgender and, you know, the don't ask, don't tell policy of years past. But to get involved in the case of a single chief petty officer in the Navy is highly unusual.

KELLY: Not something you've seen in three decades of military service.


KELLY: The Navy Times, which is covering this, it is, as you will know, an independent paper covering Navy news. They are calling this a crisis in traditional civil military relations. Is that too strong or would you agree?

LAPAN: I would agree. And I'd also remind folks to look at the totality of it. This is just the latest. I would offer that the president's involvement in sending military troops to the southwest border, some of his decisions to, again, involve himself very directly in things that normally are not the province of the president. He holds events for military troops that turn into came campaign rallies. He uses partisan talking points at these things. It's highly unusual. So all of these over time, I think, have helped corrode the normal place of the president. Now, others...

KELLY: And what is lost if that place is corroded?

LAPAN: So I'd say - you know, the military talks about good order and discipline. It's a phrase that we use a lot. A lot of people don't understand, but it's essentially the need for people to follow orders. You know, the military has a structure. It's especially important in combat. And so when you have instances like Chief Petty Officer Gallagher, being the senior SEAL on the ground at the time, doing things that he should know better and that set a very bad example for the men under him...

KELLY: We should note he was charged with more serious crimes. He was acquitted of those. And the one thing he was convicted of was posing for this photo. Go on.

LAPAN: Right. But, again, that falls into that category of good order and discipline, that if you are the more senior person there, you're supposed to set a good example for those who follow you.

KELLY: What about the argument that the president, as commander in chief, it's his right - in fact, his responsibility - to issue orders to his military commanders?

LAPAN: So it is absolutely within his authority as commander in chief to take these action. I would argue, though, the question is, is it the right thing to do? And what are the consequences? So I don't dispute that the commander in chief can do these things. I question why he does them in a way that will undermine good order and discipline and the military justice system.

KELLY: Speaking of which, I want to get your reaction to one other thing, which is that Gallagher, who remains an active duty SEAL, is granting interviews to Fox News. We've got part of one he gave over the weekend. This is Gallagher on "Fox & Friends" praising the president's leadership.


EDWARD GALLAGHER: But at the same token, I just get a feeling of embarrassment for my community that Admiral Green is letting the ego get the best of him at this point. And he's trying to take my trident because it's all about retaliation.

KELLY: The Admiral Green he refers to there is the commander of the Navy SEALs - in other words, his commander. Briefly, how unusual is that?

LAPAN: It is highly unusual and pretty stunning. Again, as you pointed out, an active duty Navy sailor, a chief petty officer going on television and publicly disparaging Navy leadership - I get it that he wants to thank the president for what the president did, but he went so far beyond that in attacking senior leadership.

KELLY: Lots of synonyms we're going to need for the word unprecedented going forward, it sounds like. That is David Lapan, a retired Marine now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Thank you.

LAPAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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