WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared Monday that President Donald Trump ordered him to stop a disciplinary review of a Navy SEAL accused of battlefield misconduct, an intervention that raised questions about America's commitment to international standards for battlefield ethics.

Esper's comments are the latest twist in the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, which led to a conflict between Trump and armed services leaders over military discipline. The dispute peaked over the weekend with the firing of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer.

Gallagher was acquitted of murder in the stabbing death of an Islamic State militant captive but convicted by a military jury of posing with the corpse while in Iraq in 2017.

Esper initially favored allowing the Navy to proceed with a peer-review board which could have resulted in Gallagher losing his SEAL status, but he said he was obliged to follow Trump's order. Still, Esper also directed the Pentagon's legal office to review how service members are educated in the laws of armed conflict and trained to wartime behavioral standards.

"I can control what I can control," Esper told reporters when asked whether Trump sent the right message to U.S. troops by intervening to stop the Gallagher review. "The president is the commander in chief. He has every right, authority and privilege to do what he wants to do."

In yet another twist to the Gallagher saga, Esper also made an extraordinary accusation against Spencer.

Esper said Spencer had gone behind his back last week to propose a secret deal with the White House in which Spencer would fix the outcome of the Gallagher review. Esper said this was a violation of the military chain of command and said Spencer acknowledged his misstep.

Through a Navy spokesman, Spencer declined requests for comment on Esper's allegation. However, in a resignation letter Sunday he had said he could not in good conscience follow an order that he believed would undermine the principle of good order and discipline in the military -- suggesting he had been ordered to stop the peer-review process for Gallagher.

Trump began to get involved in the Gallagher case in the spring after Bernard Kerik, a former business partner to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, became an advocate for the family and made appearances in conservative media.

The SEAL also changed his defense team to include Marc Mukasey, a lawyer for the Trump real estate company.

The president has tweeted in support of Gallagher, praising the sailor's service and saying the case was "handled very badly from the beginning."

Earlier this month, Trump restored Gallagher's rank, which had been reduced in his military jury conviction.

Trump also pardoned two soldiers -- a former Army special forces soldier set to stand trial next year in the killing of a suspected Afghan bombmaker in 2010 and an Army officer who had been convicted of murder for ordering his soldiers to fire on three unarmed Afghan men in 2012, killing two.

Beyond the Spencer firing, the Gallagher case has raised questions about the appropriate role of a U.S. president in matters of military justice. Esper said Trump had a constitutional right to intervene, but others worry that such actions undermine the credibility of American claims to be a leader in ethical and lawful behavior on the battlefield.

"What concerns me the most is the chilling effect this will have on special forces' willingness to report when they see illegal behavior," James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral, said in an email to The Associated Press. "That is tragic because in the end what separates us from our opponents on the battlefield is our willingness to follow the rule of law."

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