In a remarkable speech to sailors that called a fired Navy captain “too naive or too stupid” to lead, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly inflamed a controversy over his dismissal of Capt. Brett Crozier.
“If [Crozier] didn’t think that this information wasn’t going to get out to the public, in this day and information age that we live in then he was either A, too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly told the thousands of sailors still on board the COVID-stricken aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, according to audio first obtained by The San Francisco Chronicle and an unofficial partial transcript of the speech first obtained by CNN.
“The alternative is that he did this on purpose,” said Modly, who spoke Monday over the ship’s 1MC, or public-address system.
Crozier was relieved of duty on Thursday after sending a March 30 letter to dozens of Pentagon leaders asking for urgent help in finding accommodations on Guam for his crew. The letter was leaked by an anonymous source to the San Francisco Chronicle. Modly said on Thursday that when Crozier sent the letter, the Navy was already helping to evacuate the carrier and that his chief of staff had personally been talking with the captain about what to do next.
Throughout the recording, sailors can be heard in the background pushing back on Modly’s remarks defending his decision to dismiss their former CO. A sailor can be heard hollering “What the fuck?” after Modly accused Crozier of being “stupid.” When Modly asserted that Crozier’s letter was demoralizing to some sailors, someone shouts: “No, we weren’t!” At another moment, a sailor can be heard yelling, “He was trying to help us!”
In 15 minutes of remarks over the ship’s PA system, Modly berated Crozier for “a betrayal of trust,” defended himself against criticism from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, attacked the media as “having an agenda,” and complained about the “hate and pure evil” he has faced since firing Crozier. “There was very little upside in this decision for me,” he said.
Modly, a political appointee who has served in an acting capacity since the dismissal of former Secretary Richard Spencer, also echoed a falsehood pushed recently by President Trump. “No one expected this pandemic,” he said, despite years of warnings from the U.S. intelligence community, various administration officials, and public-health leaders.
The leaked transcript and audio threw gasoline on an already roiling controversy over Crozier’s ouster in Washington. Former defense officials and multiple Democratic and Independent lawmakers called for his resignation after the remarks became public.
“The acting Navy secretary is unfit for office,” tweeted former Republican congressman Justin Amash, I-Mich. “He should resign or be removed immediately.”
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., whose district includes the Navy base in Norfolk, also called for Modly’s resignation, as did Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
“These remarks to sailors are unbefitting a senior leader and will only increase divisiveness in the ranks,” tweeted former defense spokesman David Lapan. “He has failed as a leader & should resign.”
Related: ‘It Doesn’t Add Up To Me’: Current and Former Navy Officials Question Captain’s Abrupt Dismissal
Modly, in a statement, stood by his remarks.
“The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for [the sailors on the Theodore Roosevelt,” Modly said. “I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis.”
The decision to dismiss Crozier just two days after the leaked memo became public, and without a formal investigation, was already bitterly controversial. Although the Navy holds the chain of command as sacrosanct — and there is little question that Crozier’s decision to widely disseminate his memo ran afoul of that tradition — critics of the dismissal say he was relieved because he publicly embarrassed senior leadership over their handling of coronavirus.
“It creates a panic, and it creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government’s not on the job, and it’s just not true,” Modly said last week when he announced the dismissal.
Navy leaders were divided over the decision. Modly opted for immediate dismissal over the wishes of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, who wanted to wait for the results of an investigation. In a Sunday night interview with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Modly said that he fired Crozier in part out of a desire to preempt President Donald Trump from interfering in Crozier’s case. Modly’s predecessor, Spencer, lost his job following Trump’s controversial intervention in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher. Modly told Ignatius that Spencer “lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president.”
“I put myself in the president’s shoes. I considered how the president felt like he needed to get involved in Navy decisions [in the Gallagher case and the Spencer firing],” he said. “I didn’t want that to happen again.”
Over the weekend, Trump made no secret of his distaste for Crozier’s actions.
“I thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature,” Trump said Saturday. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear-powered. And he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter.”
Crozier has since been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and is in isolation in Guam. He walked off of the ship last week to cheers and chants of “Cap-tain Cro-zier” from his crew, documented in now-viral videos.
Sailors are still being evacuated from the Theodore Roosevelt. All of the almost 5,000 sailors on board will be tested for the virus, with more than 150 sailors testing positive so far. Modly urged the crew of the Roosevelt to consider the concerns of local citizens in Guam who may be worried about the American sailors bringing the disease to their community.
“So think about that when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that,” Modly said. “I understand you love the guy. It’s good you love him. But you are not required to love him.”
As he began to wrap up his remarks, Modly quoted part of a speech he said he had delivered to the U.S. Naval Academy’s graduating class of 2018.
“My best advice to you,” the acting secretary told the Roosevelt sailors, is to “love the people you are ordered to lead” and “value their lives to the point that you will always consider their safety in every single decision you make.”
Bradley Peniston contributed to this report.