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Pentagon Chief Fires Navy Secretary Over SEAL Case; Review Shows White House Effort to Justify Blocking Ukraine Aid. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired November 25, 2019 - 06:00   ET



BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Navy Secretary Richard Spencer forced to resign for going outside the chain of command.


EDDIE GALLAGHER, U.S. NAVY SEAL: They could have taken my trident any time they wanted. Now, they're trying to take it after the president restored my rank.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: "The Washington Post" reports that an internal review shows an extensive effort by the White House to justify President Trump's decision to block Ukraine aid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Office of Management and Budget is denying that anything improper took place.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: They didn't hear anybody say. Bribery, no. Extortion, no. Quid pro quo, no.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): It's really not contested what the president did. What is open is whether members of Congress are going to do their duty.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Monday, November 25. It's 6 a.m. here in New York. Alisyn is off. Bianna Golodryga joins me this morning.


BERMAN: I know, right? And all of it very, very complicated.


BERMAN: So pay attention here. We're going to begin with a stunning turn of events at the Pentagon. The secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, has basically been fired.

And on his way out the door, Spencer is accusing the president of undermining the idea of military discipline.

He writes, "I 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. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took."

So this is all connected to the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. Gallagher was demoted for posing with the corpse of an ISIS spider [SIC]. That demotion, President Trump reversed. So that much is clear.

Where it all gets murky is that a senior defense official tells CNN that Secretary Spencer is losing his job for going outside the chain of command, trying to work out a secret agreement with the White House for Gallagher to keep his status as a Navy SEAL.

GOLODRYGA: So many questions about what actually happened there. But we also have several developments in the impeachment inquiry. Remember that story?

Well, "The Washington Post" reports that A White House review of President Trump's decision to freeze military aid is out, and it finds an extensive effort to justify the move after the fact, as well as a debate about whether it was even legal.

Documents from the White House review include emails from acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to White House budget officials in early August, asking why the president was blocking aid already approved by Congress.

But let's begin with CNN's Barbara Starr, live at the Pentagon with our top story, and a stunning story, at that.

Barbara, good morning.

STARR: Good morning to both of you.

I have to tell you, even at this early hour, up and down the Pentagon hallways, there is shock and a good deal of confusion about exactly what has transpired.


STARR (voice-over): Navy Secretary Richard Spencer forced to resign for going outside the chain of command by proposing a secret agreement with the White House.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he lost confidence in Spencer over the case of Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL who posed with the corpse of an ISIS fighter. Gallagher had faced a court martial for premeditated murder and attempted murder but was acquitted of those charges. In a statement about Spencer, the Pentagon spokesman says, "Defense

Secretary Esper lost trust and confidence in him for not disclosing White House conversations."

Secretary Spencer had appeared to be seeking a way to resolve a standoff between the Pentagon and the White House over Gallagher's case. Earlier this month, President Trump was advised by the Pentagon not to intervene in the case, but he pardoned two other service members and restored Gallagher's rank anyway.

RICHARD SPENCER, FORMER NAVY SECRETARY: The president of the United States is the commander in chief. He's involved in every aspect of government, and he can make decisions and do things and give orders as he deems appropriate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, has the president explained to you his rationale behind restoring Chief Gallagher's rank?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And maintaining his pin?

SPENCER: No, he doesn't have to.

STARR: A senior defense official tells CNN that Spencer had proposed allowing Gallagher's review to move forward but with a secret guarantee with the White House that Gallagher would still keep his Navy SEAL status. But Spencer never alerted the Pentagon to these backchannel negotiations.

Spencer highlighting this disagreement with President Trump in his resignation letter, writing, "I 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. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took."

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): I believe he did the right thing. He should be proud. Good order, morale and discipline in the armed services have to transcend politics.

STARR: An administration official telling CNN the defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs raised serious concerns with the White House after Trump tweeted support for Gallagher. Despite that, Secretary Esper now says Gallagher will keep his Navy SEAL trident pin, his Navy SEAL status, out of fear that he would not receive a fair review by the military at this point.

GALLAGHER: This is all about ego and retaliation. They could have taken my trident at -- any time they wanted. Now they're trying to take it after the president restored my rank.



STARR: But perhaps the real question this morning, the real bottom line, is even though the president had the authority to intervene in these four cases involving the war crimes allegations, the fact that he did intervene, many people at the Pentagon say impacted good order and discipline inside the ranks -- Bianna.

BERMAN: I'll take it, Barbara. Yes, and it really is so confusing with all the twists and turns here.

But at the end of the day, or at the beginning of the week, we should say, what's clear, the president got what he wanted here. Eddie Gallagher is remaining as a Navy SEAL, not losing his trident, and the military establishment very upset about what this means for discipline in the ranks.

We'll discuss the implications, the major implications, next.



GOLODRYGA: A senior defense official tells CNN that Pentagon chief Mark Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer after he went outside the chain of command, proposing with a, quote, "secret agreement" with the White House involving the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

Back with us, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr; and also joining us, CNN military and diplomatic analyst, Rear Admiral John Kirby. He was a former press secretary for the U.S. Navy and the Pentagon. Don't envy the person who has that job now.

Admiral Kirby, let me begin with you. What do you make about the developments about the fact that the Navy secretary, at least according to the White House and the Defense Department, went around Esper to the White House to try to come up with a secret channel of communication?

ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: If that's true, if Esper's account of this is true, then he certainly -- he, Esper, was certainly well within his rights to -- to relieve the secretary of the Navy of his duties for lack of trust and confidence. I mean, that's simply an egregious set of behaviors there if you're going around your boss to try to cut a deal.

It also sends a very chilling message to the Navy about the degree to which the fix was in and Gallagher was going to get his pin from the get-go, regardless of the review process, which just a day prior, Mr. Spencer said, you know, he wanted to proceed appropriately and -- and unimpinged by political interests. So it's a very troubling set of circumstances.

The problem is, Bianna, we don't know whose version of this is accurate. Trump puts out a tweet saying that, you know, he fired Spencer because of contracting problems, as well as the review process. Esper says he fired Spencer for going around his back. And Esper -- and Spencer says he quit, because he couldn't follow an order he couldn't believe in. So it's very difficult to shake it out. I think today is going to be a very interesting day, to see how the Pentagon speaks to it.

BERMAN: Yes. That confusion exists, frankly, because we can't count on honesty from this White House --

KIRBY: That's right.

BERMAN: -- on a daily basis. So you do have to question when they say things as a matter of fact.

Barbara, the way I look at this story, though, is no matter what the final straw was in terms of Spencer here, what is clear is that there is a dispute within the institution of the Navy and the military and the president of the United States over the right way to handle this case and the right way to handle military discipline.

And no matter what led to Spencer leaving, to have Spencer's resignation letter basically say that "the commander in chief no longer holds the same views I do on military discipline," that's extraordinary.

STARR: Yes. You know, where have you heard that kind of letter before? Jim Mattis when he resigned.


STARR: You know, saying that he could not, in good conscience, stay on.

Look, I really think, you know, time to rip the Band-Aid off here. Throughout the senior levels of the military for months now, there has been a good deal of concern about all of this. These are cases that involve allegations of war crimes.

Now, does the president of the United States have the legal right, as commander in chief, to step in, intervene, and order people to be kept on their SEAL status, order them to have their rank restored; in the other cases, order them pardoned? Of course, he has the right as commander in chief.

But what we keep hearing is just because he has the right to do it, should he do it? What is the implication for good order and discipline?

The Navy very much wanted to handle this on its own. They wanted to go through the standard review process.

It's very well understood, very well known that, frankly -- and we have seen it -- Gallagher and others went to FOX News. FOX News very much had the ear of the president on this. These are facts not in dispute. And the president sided with them over his own military chain of command. This is not what the highest levels, the highest- ranking officers wanted to see.

GOLODRYGA: And Admiral, as John pointed out before the break, look at where we are now. Gallagher still in place, right?

KIRBY: Right.

GOLODRYGA: And you have the secretary of the Navy out. What does that say to Navy officers and those who are serving in the Navy about morale internally? Because it was the Navy SEALs themselves who turned on Gallagher.

KIRBY: Right. I think -- I mean, I think the SEAL community is going through a lot of changes right now. The admiral out there, two-star Collin Green, has been trying to get his arm around behavior, conduct and ethics issues inside the SEAL community now for months. And so this isn't go to make his job any easier.

And there are some SEALs who support Eddie Gallagher. I think that's probably true. But I suspect most of them are -- just want to get back to their jobs. They want to do it well, and they want good order and discipline inside the ranks, too.

So there's going to be -- This is going to be divisive, not just in the SEAL community but also in the Navy. And it's going to lead some senior officers to try to think about their futures and the degree to which they're going to be allowed to stand in front of sailors in the future and tout good order and discipline and ethics when they now have to let this guy, you know, end this review process and let him have his trident.


Look, I want to say one other thing. This has been -- while the Navy didn't acquit itself perfectly in his trial, Gallagher's trial, this has been little more than a shake-down by the commander in chief from the get-go, egged on by FOX News, by conservative right-wing media groups and by members of the political base.

The last couple of weeks, we've been talking about the potential of a commander in chief using his foreign policy power for domestic political purposes, I think we should be asking ourselves the same question here, whether the commander in chief abused his authorities, which Barbara's right, he has them for his own domestic political purposes here, too.

BERMAN: And remember, he's getting what he wants here. Gallagher is --

KIRBY: Absolutely.

BERMAN: -- keeping his trident, and we're left with a story that you really have to put your brain into, you know, contortions to understand.

KIRBY: And if I could just add, there's three other sailors, three other SEALs that are going through this same review process for the same offense that Gallagher was found guilty of, posing with these photos of the war dead, which is a violation of the UCMJ and a potential war crime. They're going through this same review process. So now what does the Navy do about them? They've got to let Gallagher -- they've got to drop it in Gallagher's case, give him his trident back. What are they going to do about these other three SEALs?

GOLODRYGA: It's a big mess.

BERMAN: And we can see -- we can see how this case is affecting you as a Navy veteran.

KIRBY: Sorry.

BERMAN: Admiral Kirby, thanks for being with us.

Barbara Starr, terrific reporting. Really appreciate it.

So the White House this morning trying to justify freezing military aid to Ukraine and creates some kind of a paper trail after the fact. What newly-uncovered emails show us. That's next.



BERMAN: New details this morning about the chaos and perhaps cleanup efforts inside the White House after the president's decision to freeze military aid to Ukraine. A confidential White House review has found there was an extensive effort to justify the move after the fact, as well as to debate about whether it was even legal.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux live on Capitol Hill. No hearings this week, Suzanne, but a lot of new information coming to light.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. A break from the hearings. But, yes, there is new information here.

This is coming from a "Washington Post" report here. And what it does is it reveals, after the fact, the level within the White House the debate, the division, the tension over the justification for delaying Ukrainian aid.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): When House Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry into President Trump, the White House quickly responded, launching a confidential internal review of his decision to withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.

As first reported by "The Washington Post," the White House counsel's office uncovering hundreds of documents, with three sources telling the paper one early August email exchange between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and budget officials shows the White House looking for a way to explain the freeze after Trump already paused security assistance funds in mid-July.

That conversation coming days after the White House counsel's office learned about the whistle-blower complaint, scrutinizing Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's leader. Budget lawyers ultimately decided it was legal to withhold the

security assistance, a person familiar with the review confirms to CNN, as long as it was called temporary.

The Office of Management and Budget writing in a statement Sunday there "was a legal consensus at every step of the way that the money could be withheld in order to conduct the policy review."

A source tells CNN that some Trump administration officials feared the money would never be released. The White House eventually sending the military funding to Ukraine in September, two days after the House was informed of the whistle-blower complaint, which sparked the impeachment inquiry, focusing on whether Trump abused his power by using that military aid and a possible meeting in Washington to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.

Meanwhile, after two weeks of public hearings, House Democrats pressing forward.

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Every single day provides new and incriminating evidence. So it's a little hard to tell you that this thing is done.

MALVEAUX: Trump's allies once again using this defense.

CONWAY: They didn't hear anybody say, when they were asked bribery, no. Extortion, no. Quid pro quo for the aid, no. Preconditions for meeting? Did the president commit a crime? No, no, no.

MALVEAUX: House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff wants top administration officials like John Bolton to testify but not willing to go to court to compel him.

SCHIFF: He will have to explain one day, if that -- he maintains that position, why he wanted to wait to put it in a book instead of tell the American people what he knew when it really mattered to the country.


MALVEAUX: And Chairman Schiff says he is still considering additional depositions as well as hearings as the Intel Committee continues to prepare its report. That report will be handed over to the Judiciary Committee to consider articles of impeachment. We're expecting that after Thanksgiving -- Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Suzanne, things happening rather quickly. Thank you so much.

MALVEAUX: Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: Well, a judge will decide today if former White House lawyer Don McGahn must testify. So could it give cover to other top officials to cooperate, as well? We'll discuss, coming up next.


BERMAN: A White House review of President Trump's decision to withhold nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine shows an extensive effort to justify it after the fact and a debate over its legality.

Joining us now is CNN political commentator Joe Lockhart. He was President Clinton's press secretary. And CNN political analyst Rachael Bade. She's a congressional reporter for "The Washington Post."

And it's your paper, Rachael, that broke the reporting about what seems to be a cleanup effort or an after-the-fact attempt to justify the president's decision to withhold this U.S. military aid. What do you see here in the White House actions?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think cleanup effort is a perfect way to describe it. Look, it's clear that the White House, after the whistle-blower came forward and sort of talked to the inspector general.