Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus

Ray Mabus, the longest serving U.S. Navy secretary in the post-World War I period and former Mississippi governor, says President Donald Trump acted inappropriately in getting involved with a Navy SEAL’s court-martial.

In a tweet last week, Trump ordered the Pentagon not to remove a Navy SEAL at the center of a high-profile war crimes case. Top Navy officials wanted to oust Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who was convicted in a court-martial trial of posing for photographs with the body of a teenage Islamic State captive in American custody.

“The president completely inappropriately inserted himself into this process,” Mabus told Mississippi Today on Monday afternoon in a telephone interview from Washington.

The president’s opinion of the matter pitted him also against the public stances of several senior military advisers, who reportedly worked to convince the president to allow the Navy’s disciplinary process to play out. 

But by Sunday, Trump’s Secretary of Defense Mark Esper fired Richard Spencer, the Secretary of the Navy who resisted the president’s efforts to quash the hearing process. By Monday, officials said Gallagher’s case was closed and no further hearings or disciplinary action would occur.

“He undermined military justice and disrespected people who have served honorably,” Mabus added. “But the main thing at issue is a president keeping a military service from imposing accountability, seeking out justice and deciding who is qualified to be in that service.”

Mabus, who served eight years as President Barack Obama’s Navy secretary, continued: “Gallagher was turned in by members of his own squad. For a president to step in, despite our military leaders saying don’t do this — he ignored the advice of his military commanders and took military advice from Fox News. That’s a very terrifying thing.”

In a Monday letter that acknowledged his termination, Spencer said the president deserved a Navy secretary “who is aligned with his vision” and invoked “good order and discipline,” a key tenet of U.S. military culture. 

“Unfortunately, it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me,” Spencer wrote. “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 in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Top Pentagon officials told reporters on Monday that the Gallagher case “is closed” and that the SEAL will not be removed from his unit.

Mabus said the president’s intervention “sets a terrible precedent.”

“To have a good functioning military, you have to keep order in the ranks so that people don’t think they can break the law or commit war crimes — that people know they have to obey the orders of chains of command and that they will be held responsible for the things that they do,” Mabus said. “The Navy is very protective. There’s got to be a process to look at it — not one coming from a place of political correctness, but one of good order and discipline.”

Mabus, a 71-year-old native of Ackerman, served one term as Mississippi state auditor before his gubernatorial election. Following his time in the Governor’s Mansion, he was appointed by former President Bill Clinton as ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.