Trump's intervention in SEAL case alienates military command
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, Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck.
The same 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 Donald Trump, who upended the code of military justice to protect him from the punishment resulting from the episode. Prodded by Fox News, Trump has made Gallagher a cause célèbre, trumpeting him as an argument for his reelection.
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 Gallagher be held accountable. 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 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 from a disenchanted military command than ever, 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,” 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. 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 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 Gallagher’s platoon, said in an interview that he was troubled by the impact the president’s intervention could have on the SEALs.