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Ousted Navy Secretary Spencer, A Lifelong Republican, Appears With Michael Bloomberg


While most of the Democratic presidential contenders are vying for votes in New Hampshire, Michael Bloomberg is focused on the 14 states where he hopes to win big in next month's Super Tuesday. Today, Bloomberg was in one of those states, Virginia, for the fourth time since launching his campaign there in November. He went to Norfolk, home to the nation's largest naval base, and brought with him the man who, until last November, was President Trump's Secretary of the Navy.

NPR's David Welna was there, too. He joins me now from Norfolk.

Hey, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So worth reminding that President Trump fired Richard Spencer, the former Navy secretary, who is now out stumping for Michael Bloomberg, which makes him - I think I'm correct on this - the first veteran of the Trump administration who is publicly trying to put his old boss out of a job.

WELNA: That's right.

KELLY: Did this come as a surprise?

WELNA: Well, you know, this is indeed a big get for Bloomberg, but it's really not all that surprising given all the bad blood that Spencer had had with Trump for months. What really ended things between them was Trump's intervention in the case involving former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who'd been charged with war crimes. Spencer admits he tried dealing with the White House about this while going around Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And today he seemed to acknowledge that misstep when he got up to introduce Bloomberg. Here's Spencer.


RICHARD SPENCER: Did I get everything right? No. I didn't get everything right. But I believe I stood up for the principles and the values of our services and our nation. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm a lifelong Republican. I quantify myself as a Reagan Republican. But I'm here before you today because I am tremendously concerned.

WELNA: Now not only is Spencer, as he said, a lifelong Republican, he's also a former Marine, as well as being the Navy's top civilian for nearly three years under Trump, who named him to that post. So his endorsement of Bloomberg is sort of a big play to win over other disaffected Republicans and military people to Bloomberg's side. Here's Spencer again.


SPENCER: I don't care if you're a Republican, you're a Democrat or independent. If we are to sustain this experiment that we call democracy, America needs the best leader available.

KELLY: Michael Bloomberg has got to be pleased about getting a former member of Trump's cabinet to endorse him. What is Bloomberg saying today?

WELNA: Well, he is indeed pleased with Spencer's public support. And he played it up for an audience that had a lot of former military people in it. Here's Bloomberg this morning.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Thank you, Secretary Spencer, and - for your service and your leadership and your integrity...


BLOOMBERG: ...And for always honoring the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America even in the face of tremendous pressure.

KELLY: Now, David, Bloomberg is in Virginia because, as we said, he's focused on Super Tuesday. He's skipping the first four states in this nomination contest. Can you tell - is he getting much traction in Virginia?

WELNA: Well, it's probably too soon to tell. But I must say the several hundred people who showed up for today's event at a Naval museum were pretty enthusiastic. One of them was Ernest Stewart, a 72-year-old African American and retired Marine.

ERNEST STEWART: We got people that are listening. They're here, and we're going to win this thing. And Mike is the man. Mike is only short in stature. Mike's got a big heart. He's 10 times taller than Trump is.

KELLY: He has also got a lot more money than Trump does. He is a billionaire. He is completely self-financing his campaign, and that has been a central question about his campaign, that he might be trying to buy this Democratic nomination. How does he get past that?

WELNA: Well, he says he is not beholden to anyone since it's his own money. He's also promised to spend $1 billion to defeat Trump no matter who the Democratic nominee is. I talked with retired Marine General Paul Kennedy, who's working with Bloomberg's campaign, and he told me an endorsement like Spencer's today could bring more like it.

PAUL KENNEDY: I'm not sure I could predict who is going to join us, but I think that they are going to be inspired by an event like today. When they see a leader like Richard Spencer making the statement that he made, I think that they will follow suit.

WELNA: And if that happens, it would certainly undermine Trump's claim to have the military behind him.

KELLY: Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're welcome.

KELLY: That is NPR's David Welna reporting today from Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.