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Sean Spicer joins lawsuit against DOD, Navy, Naval Academy over Board of Visitors

Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer has joined a lawsuit against the Department of Defense, the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, their service academies and their superintendents over the failure of the schools’ boards of visitors to meet.

Spicer served on the Naval Academy Board of Visitors until Sept. 8, when President Joe Biden asked for the resignation of 18 Trump-appointed members of the service academy boards. For those who did not resign, their positions were terminated.

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In a Sept. 12 letter to the White House, Spicer refused to resign. He noted that, when asked, he stepped down from the President’s Commission of White House Fellows. But his appointment to the Naval Academy board is different, he wrote.

“The demand for the resignation to a military service academy, in this case the United States Naval Academy, is unprecedented and, I believe, bad policy because it is divisive, would destroy the politically balanced structure of the Boards of Visitors as created by Congress and deprive the academies of the diversity of experience, knowledge and perspectives the academies traditionally have had and need in order for the academies to fulfill their missions competently and in a manner reflective of all of the American people,” Spicer wrote.

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In a Sept. 10 interview with The Capital, Spicer said he was surprised by the request to leave the board. He said he was under the impression that the panel, which has not met since last year, would soon be able to convene. A meeting is scheduled for Sept. 27, according to the board’s website.

A May meeting is listed as canceled, “Pending Zero Based Review.” That’s an evaluation by the Defense Department of the members and roles of dozens of military advisory boards. An unnamed official said in a DOD report in February that Secretary Lloyd Austin was concerned “with the pace and the extent of recent changes to memberships of the department advisory committees done with a bit of frenetic activity in the final two months of the previous administration. I think it … gave him pause to consider the broad scope and purpose of these boards and to think about how they can best be aligned and organized and composed to provide competent, technical professional advice.”

Then-President Donald Trump appointed Spicer in July 2019 to the Naval Academy board and he was sworn in for a three-year term in December 2019.

In defending Biden’s requests for the Trump appointees to be removed from the boards, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Sept. 8 that it’s up for the public to question if members, such as Spicer or former top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, who served on the Air Force Academy board, were qualified.

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Spicer said that was insulting, considering his 22 years in the Navy, as well as the experience of others on the board. Spicer is a commander in the Navy Reserve and earned a master’s degree at the Naval War College. He also pointed to the experience of those asked to leave the U.S. Military Academy Board: retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, retired Gen. Jack Keane and retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan.

“It’s insulting to their service for someone like Jen Psaki to suggest that they aren’t qualified to serve,” Spicer said. “It’s disrespectful, days from 9/11, for her to make that suggestion from the White House podium.”

However, the most recent complaint filed in the lawsuit that Spicer joined does not reference his resignation or the president terminating the positions. The president is not listed as a defendant.

The lawsuit focuses instead on the legitimacy of the Department of Defense to keep the boards from meeting because the boards were created by Congress, not the DOD. It was filed July 15 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and is spearheaded by Heidi Stirrup, a former member of the Air Force board.

The plaintiffs allege that without meetings, they haven’t been able to receive information and advise the academies on topics such as the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccinations and the alleged inclusion of “critical race theory” in anti-racism instruction. Critics of CRT, a legal concept that examines how racism is embedded in U.S. systems and policies, say it inaccurately filters history, is opposed to U.S. values, and seeks to make white students feel guilt over events of the past. Some conservative leaders have latched onto CRT as a catchall term for diversity efforts.

The academy and the Defense Department declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Asked if critical race theory is part of Naval Academy instruction, Cmdr. Alana Garas said in an email that there are no courses or training dedicated to CRT, white privilege, whiteness or anything that suggests the U.S. is inherently racist.

“A vast array of intellectual ideas, approaches and theories are mentioned in the course of a discussion in classrooms, but there are no related subjects in our syllabi in the relevant courses,” she said.

The academy does focus on respect and including people of all backgrounds as part of its training, Garas said.

Spicer has specific questions about the Naval Academy that he thinks its board needs to be able to ask. He would like to learn more about accusations of mass cheating on an online physics test in December 2020 that became public last month, he said. There are also infrastructure funding concerns, including the sea wall at the academy, that need to be addressed, he said.

“And so this administration has put the jeopardy of the future of the Naval Academy at stake,” Spicer said.

Spicer was not initially planning to join the lawsuit because he believed the board would be able to meet shortly, he said. He changed his mind after Biden’s actions, saying he does not want this to happen under future administrations.

Outside of the lawsuit, Spicer said members of Congress should look to codify language that prevents administrations from removing people appointed during previous presidencies. This could possibly be added to the National Defense Authorization Act, he said.

“Congress set these boards up to ... provide oversight of the academies,” Spicer said. “And this administration has shut down that oversight. Why? Why and no one is asked that question yet. Why? What is this administration trying to hide?”

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