Jim Mattis must be rolling in his political grave. The Marine general-turned-defense secretary did everything in his power to keep the military out of the spotlight and disconnected to Trump’s firebrand version of American politics. He and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford kept their peers off the airwaves, off cable news, and off public stages to prevent reporters from pressing them on Trump’s red-hot tweets and sudden policy turns. They took a lot of heat for it, but it certainly did the job.
That was then, this is now. Since last summer, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has lived up to his promise to re-engage with the public and the media. That’s a good thing. He and 4-star officers across the military have become television regulars once again, especially during the coronavirus crisis. Esper and his new team are holding several on-record, on-camera briefings each day. They are sometimes too brief, but they are on-camera, regular, and do much more to inform the public than any Pentagon leadership team since Trump took office. They should be commended for returning to the podium to fulfill that responsibility to the public they serve.
But under Esper, something else has happened. Senior defense officials and uniformed military commanders also have begun to appear on right-wing talk shows, like Sean Hannity and Hugh Hewitt. That’s not taking care to avoid partisan politics; that’s feeding them up to the lions in the Colosseum.
Hannity, who in early March called warnings about the coronavirus a Democratic-media “hoax” to take down the president, was broadcasting on March 30 dockside in front of the USNS Mercy in New York. His on-air guests were Capt. James O’Brien, of the USNS Comfort, and Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command. It’s extremely rare for military personnel to appear on cable opinion shows like that. Perhaps the Pentagon just wanted to bring a public health warning about COVID-19 to an audience who has been told to disregard it.
Then, later last week, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly fired Capt. Brett Crozier, the commander of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, for writing a blistering letter to his superiors that embarrassed Navy leadership and the Trump administration. Overnight, Modly went from being a near-unknown to being a historically consequential service secretary.
On Friday, the morning after Modly announced his decision, which touched off a frenzy of controversy and criticism, the acting secretary took to conservative Hugh Hewitt’s soft-gloved radio show. It was a calculated move, intended to shape the public narrative and avoid tough questions. Hewitt opened the segment by saying he wanted to ask Modly about the incident but meekly added, “If it’s an inappropriate question, just say so.” Modly then proceeded to trash Crozier. He said the 28-year officer had become “overwhelmed” as he made his case to Hewitt’s audience of loyal Trump supporters.
The appearance calmed no nerves. And it drew out harsh rebukes from some of the most senior retired naval officers in the country in support of Crozier for speaking out for the safety of his crew.
“He made the right choice,” said Adm. James Stavridis, former commander of NATO and supreme allied commander-Europe, who also commanded the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group. “I was deeply surprised the Navy removed him.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Modly made “a really bad decision.” Mullen rarely comments on the news, but he spoke to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. Ignatius, a left-leaning foreign policy columnist, is a former foreign correspondent who knows a thing or two about the Navy. Last year, the service named a destroyer after his father, Navy Secretary Paul Ignatius. The columnist reported that Modly had privately told friends that it was Trump who wanted Crozier fired. Later on Saturday, Trump said he thought Crozier’s letter was “terrible,” speaking at a White House press conference.
By Sunday morning’s talk shows, Esper was being asked about Crozier, Modly, and his commander in chief as much as the coronavirus whose infection is accelerating within the armed forces. Esper protected Modly and the president.
Ray Mabus, Navy secretary under President Barack Obama, tweeted on Sunday, “This comes from the top. We have a #commanderinchief who pardons convicted war criminals, calls people ‘my generals,’ sends Navy ships on missions to fight a non existent (sic) surge in drugs evidently in an effort to distract from #COVID & fires anyone who doesn’t agree all the time w/bizarre theories & actions. Our military, like our national government has no overall plan on #COVID. Firing CO sends chilling signal to other commanders.”
On Monday morning, Modly’s true partisan colors emerged. The acting secretary flew to Guam and went aboard the Roosevelt. By the time Washington’s morning coffee was poured, a partial transcript of his speech to the crew leaked; later, a recording was posted by Task & Purpose.
Modly’s desperately rambling speech to the aircraft carrier crew is more than 15 minutes of jaw-dropping media-hating by a conspiracy-mongering Trump appointee. Modly completely trashes Crozier, who is still an active duty U.S. Navy officer, and tries to turn an aircraft carrier crew against their former commander while demanding their loyalty.
Modly even compared Crozier to China.
“No one at my level has been ignoring the situation here, from the very beginning,” Modly said. Modly repeated his version of events, and his allegations that Crozier was wrong to claim his concerns were not being heeded in Washington before he sent the letter, which revealed “sensitive information.”
“If he didn’t think that information was going to get out into the public, in this information age that we live in, then he was a) either too naive or too stupid to be commanding officer of a ship like this,” the acting secretary said, over the ship’s crackling public address system.
When Modly said it, a crew member can be heard reacting with surprise, saying, “What the fuck?”
“The alternate is he did it on purpose,” Modly continues, again implying with no evidence that Crozier directly leaked the email to the press.
“It was betrayal,” Modly said, over and over on the loudspeaker, trying to turn the crew against the captain they cheered off the ship just days earlier. “Because he did that, he put it in the public forum and it’s now become a big controversy back in Washington, D.C., and across the country about a martyr [commanding officer] who wasn’t getting the help he needed and therefore had to go through the chain of the command — a chain of command that goes through the media.”
He continued: “There is no, no situation where you go to the media, because the media has an agenda, and the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit. And I’m sorry that’s the way the country is now, but it’s the truth. And so they use it to divide us. They use it to embarrass the Navy. They use it to embarrass you.”
Modly tells the crew that their duty is to ask how to help each other and “not to complain.” He uses more profanity.
He then says the global pandemic is the fault of “a big authoritarian regime called China” for hiding the truth and putting the world at risk to protect themselves and their reputations. To which, he says, “We don’t do that in the Navy.”
The irony is obvious, but it apparently wasn’t to Modly, who said Crozier only caused a panic on Guam and elsewhere with his letter.
“Think about that, when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that. I understand you love the guy, it’s good that you love him but you’re not required to love him.”
Nobody is required to love acting Navy secretaries, either. By midday on Monday, at least one member of Congress had called for Modly’s immediate removal from office.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, said Modly’s remarks to the crew were “completely inappropriate. Our dedicated sailors deserve better from their leadership.”
“Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s remarks to the crew show that he is in no way fit to lead our Navy through this trying time. Secretary Esper should immediately fire him,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., who represents Norfolk, headquarters of the Atlantic Fleet, and is vice chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.
Modly is a welcome reminder that even at the Pentagon, political appointees are partisan political animals. The idea that the military should stay out of politics and obey civilian authority is one thing. It’s in the Constitution, it’s American tradition, and it’s a fundamental characteristic of democracy. But it applies to the military leaders in uniform. The idea that the political appointees in charge of the Defense Department are somehow also apolitical, or somehow different than, less beholden to, or less responsible for the White House and this president’s views is pure fiction.
Mabus, Obama’s Navy secretary, wrote me on Monday, saying, “This is where the politicization of the military has come to under this administration. Either you become a full fledged defender of Trump, regardless of the harm to the military, or you lose your job. Evidently no one is allowed to tell the truth if it conflicts with what Trump is saying.”
Every defense secretary is a political appointee. So is the deputy defense secretary, who runs the budget. And so are the service secretaries, like Modly. Their return to public accountability through media appearances is appreciated. But when political appointees tell U.S. troops that they should not trust their fellow American journalists, and wrongly tell them that journalists have left or right political agendas, that’s an entirely different threat to democracy. Appointees pledge an oath to defend the Constitution, including the free press.
Modly ignores the parting advice of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican serving under a Democratic president, who in his final press conference thanked the Pentagon press corps for exposing potentially embarrassing issues in the military, including unsafe conditions at Walter Reed hospital and problems procuring life-saving M-RAP vehicles, so that he could right those wrongs.
“When I first took office, I worried that relations between the Pentagon, the military and the press, while always difficult, were mostly characterized by mutual suspicion and resentment” Gates said. “So I made it a point when speaking to military officers, from cadets to generals, to remind them that a vigorous, inquisitive and even skeptical press was a critically important guarantor of freedom under the Constitution and not to be treated as the enemy.”