With a trio of tweets Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump nixed the Navy Achievement Medals recently bestowed on four prosecutors tied to the war crimes case against Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward “Eddie” Gallagher.
“Not only did they lose the case, they had difficulty with respect to information that may have been obtained from opposing lawyers and for giving immunity in a totally incompetent fashion,” Trump tweeted.
“I have directed the Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer & Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson to immediately withdraw and rescind the awards.”
Pentagon officials told Navy Times that they will comply with the president’s order.
On July 2, a military panel of his peers at Gallagher’s San Diego court-martial trial cleared him on premeditated murder, obstruction of justice and all but one other charge tied to a 2017 deployment with Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7, to Iraq.
Gallagher, 40, was found guilty only of appearing in a photograph that depicted him near a dead Islamic State prisoner of war, an allegation he never denied. A rear admiral continues to mull his sentence.
Despite their setbacks in court, eight days later four commissioned officers on the military prosecution team received NAMs from their boss at Regional Legal Service Office Southwest — Capt. Meg Larrea — in a special ceremony overseen by Capt. Gary E. Sharp, the chief of staff of Naval Legal Services Command in Washington.
The decorations raised eyebrows because although those Navy attorneys weren’t found culpable of wrongdoing during the case against Gallagher, their prosecution team was sanctioned by Navy judge Capt. Aaron Rugh for violating the defendant’s constitutional rights.
Part of the punishment included booting Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, the lead prosecutor, for a warrantless surveillance program cooked up with Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents to track emails sent by defense attorneys and Navy Times.
And the spying wasn’t the only allegation of prosecutorial and police misconduct dogging the case.
They were accused of manipulating witness statements to NCIS agents; using immunity grants and a bogus “target letter” in a crude attempt to keep pro-Gallagher witnesses from testifying; illegally leaking documents to the media to taint the military jury pool; and then trying to cover it all up when they got caught.
As noted in his Wednesday message, it’s not the first time a tweeting Trump has inserted himself into the Gallager case.
On March 30, the president took to Twitter to announce that he ordered the Pentagon to release Gallagher from pretrial confinement in San Diego’s Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar.
“In honor of his past service to our Country, Navy Seal
#EddieGallagher will soon be moved to less restrictive confinement while he awaits his day in court," Trump tweeted. “Process should move quickly!”
And it did, with Navy officials immediately moving to spring Gallagher from the brig.
A day after the verdict in Gallagher’s court-martial case, Trump also tweeted congratulations to the SEAL, his wife Andrea, and his entire family.
“You have been through much together. Glad I could help!” the president wrote.
The president’s order on Wednesday doesn’t touch the three NAMs presented during the same ceremony to legalman petty officers, plus letters of commendations for a gunner’s mate third class, legalman second class and ships serviceman seaman.
Critics told Navy Times that they never objected to any awards for enlisted sailors, who they agreed toiled for long hours on the case, just the commissioned officers who participated as legal architects of Gallagher’s prosecution.
“Once again, the commander in chief has stepped in to exert leadership when Navy leadership failed to do the right thing,” said Gallagher’s civilian attorney, Timothy Parlatore.
Calling the NAMs an “embarrassment to the RLSO,” Parlatore urged its commander, Capt. Larrea, to resign her post while superiors investigate her role in both the awarding of the commendations and the botched case against Gallagher.
The president’s tweets could have a bearing on a hearing slated to begin Friday in San Diego that involves the officer in charge of Gallagher’s platoon in Iraq.
Although a panel already ruled on Gallagher, Lt. Jacob X. “Jake” Portier remains accused of failing to report war crimes the jurors said never happened, part of a cover up by the SEAL chief they believe he never attempted.
Portier’s court-martial trial is scheduled to start on Sept. 3 in San Diego.
Portier’s civilian defense attorney, Jeremiah J. Sullivan III, thanked the president for supporting the sailors who go to war but urged him to take a closer look at the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps back home.
Calling it “absolutely service discrediting for the Navy to have POTUS strip their awards,” Sullivan urged unnamed JAG officials to "tender their resignations before their names appear in a tweet.”
On Friday, Sullivan and his defense team will broach a tricky subject raised in a July 19 motion they drafted about the NAM ceremony.
Their filing alleges that during the event, Capt. Sharp announced “no matter the result, we were right to prosecute” Gallagher and that “justice was done.”
To them, Sharp insinuated that Gallagher had “committed more serious misconduct than he was found guilty of."
And they say that’s a problem because the judge who heard the Gallagher case and continues to preside over Portier’s, Capt. Rugh, was in the room when Sharp said it.
At the end of the ceremony, he was even invited to shake the hands of those bestowed with awards “and congratulate them on their achievements," according to the motion.
The defense team’s filing doesn’t call on Rugh to step down before Portier’s trial, but it suggests they must question him under oath to make sure he can remain an impartial judge during the upcoming trial.
“What is the Navy waiting for to dismiss the Portier case?" Sullivan said on Wednesday. “Do they really need a tweet?”
Citing the ongoing litigation, Navy officials declined to comment about that.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.