Micromanaging: Trump, The SEALs, And Incidents Of My Own


Leonard Zwelling


This opinion piece in The Washington Post is by former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. He was fired by Defense Secretary Mark Esper after having lost the confidence of Esper and of President Trump with regard to the way he handled the case of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL.

The details of the case are not really important for they should have been a matter for the SEALs to handle. In short, Gallagher was accused of several war crimes, acquitted of most of these by a military court, but was found guilty of posing with a dead enemy combatant. The SEALs were in the process of determining Gallagher’s final fate, at what rank he would retire, and whether he would do so with or without his trident SEALs pin. President Trump repeatedly intervened in the case and made the unilateral decision that Gallagher would retire at his highest achieved grade and would get to keep his pin thus ending any need for continued deliberation on the part of the military. The problem with all of this is not the outcome. The problem is with the process.

The United States military, including the elite Navy SEALs, has very uniform processes in place to deal with disciplinary matters that arise on the battlefield and off. It is essential for order and discipline in the corps that these processes be followed and be immune from meddling by civilian authority barring exigent circumstances which were not in effect here. Mr. Trump did what he did for personal political purposes (it’s why he does everything) and not because he genuinely understands how the military ought to work or thought it was malfunctioning in this case or those of the other two servicemen in whose cases he interfered.

I feel for former Secretary Spencer although trying to by-pass his immediate boss, Secretary Esper, was really dumb. You have to keep the supervisor in the loop especially in the military and Spencer did not do that, something he admits to in the editorial.

I too have been there.

In my tenure as a vice president at Anderson, it was common for me to have to deal with examples of faculty members making severe errors of judgment and often violations of federal code. That was kind of my job. Most of the people in my office made the trains run on time. Grant applications were submitted on time. Conflict of interest disclosures were registered in our computer system. Human subjects were registered on clinical trial protocols and many meetings were kept on schedule. That was our job. My staff did it, and did it very well, if I do say so myself.

When something went wrong, that was my job. An ineligible patient was put on a protocol. I had to deal with it. An animal protocol was broken or a monkey shot at Bastrop. My problem. Accusations of research misconduct were alleged. It was my job to form the three-person ad hoc faculty committee that would analyze the evidence of misdeeds. That was what I did. I was the designated inmate for anything that went wrong.

I am not complaining—then or now. I did this voluntarily for one reason only. I felt strongly that these aspects of research administration ought to be under faculty control, not that of administrators. All the committees reviewing research were chaired by faculty, not by me. But when a decision was made, the implementation of the verdict was mine to do. UNLESS….

Not a few times those above me, especially the then-president intervened. Now it was his right to do so, just as it is President Trump’s to do what he did as commander-in-chief. But does such intervention undermine discipline and control by the people actually being regulated? Isn’t self-government a better idea?

I think so and thought so when I was a VP. I had three bosses– the leadership of MD Anderson, the faculty and the federal code. Most of the time they were aligned. Sometimes, due to a lack of understanding of that federal code, the leadership was, in my opinion, off base. That did not prevent them from reaching down into the organization and micromanaging the judgments of peer review. They did it all the time and it drove me crazy. It eventually drove me to resign the oversight of clinical research infrastructure and eventually get fired altogether.

I really feel for Secretary Spencer. I feel his pain and he certainly screwed up by not keeping Esper in the loop, something I did not do. I kept my immediate boss informed even as I clashed with the president.

It’s all part of the job and tough to negotiate when you are in middle management. This is brought out beautifully in the current film Ford v. Ferrari when the management toadies at Ford override the judgment of those trying to win Le Mans with a faster race car AND a great driver.

Bureaucracy will get you every time even when you are part of it.

Presidents have to be judicious when they intervene in matters about which they know little. The one currently in the Oval Office knows little about most things. He should leave running the government to those who actually know how. He should stick to red hats and rallies on TV, that which he knows about.

He knows nothing about the military and this latest episode proves it.

Leonard Zwelling