Acting Secretary Modly’s Thursday decision to sack the skipper of Theodore Roosevelt was quickly criticized as retaliation for embarrassing Navy leaders.
Updated, 7:18 p.m.
The commander of USS Theodore Roosevelt, who sounded the alarm about a COVID-19 outbreak aboard his aircraft carrier, has been relieved of command by the acting Navy secretary.
Capt. Brett Crozier “demonstrated extremely poor judgement in the midst of a crisis” by sending a four-page request for urgent help to people outside his chain of command, Thomas Modly told reporters Thursday afternoon.
The carrier pulled into Guam on Friday after several COVID-sickened sailors had been medevaced off the ship. Crozier soon began sending sailors ashore to accommodations where they could isolate themselves, but became concerned that a lack of rooms on Guam was slowing the evacuation. A total of 114 Roosevelt sailors have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the ultimate number will probably be "in the hundreds," Modly said.
Modly said Crozier could have “walked down the hall” to his immediate boss, the admiral in charge of the carrier’s strike group, or expressed his concerns in one of his conversations with Modly’s chief of staff. Instead, Crozier sent his March 30 letter over unsecure email to multiple Navy leaders in and outside his chain of command, and it made its way to the San Francisco Chronicle, which published it on Tuesday.
Modly denied that the letter and its intense media coverage spurred the Navy into quicker action. And he denied that Crozier’s firing was “retribution,” praising the captain for looking out for his crew and sounding alarms.
“It was the way in which he did it," said Modly.
Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said he agreed with the decision.
Modly said the letter made it look as if the Navy was not helping Crozier. The acting secretary repeated his Wednesday denials that the Navy only took action after the letter, and reiterated that preparations for evacuating the majority of the crew had already begun at that point.
In the six days since the ship tied up in Guam, Modly said, the Navy has arranged shore-based accommodations for almost 3,000 sailors.
“And that’s what’s frustrating about it: it created the perception that the Navy’s not on the job, and the government’s not on the job,” the acting secretary said.
Modly added that Crozier had not properly prepared his chief petty officers — the ship's senior noncommissioned officers — to discuss his plans to put some 90 percent of the crew ashore as fast as possible. The secretary alleged it created “a mini-panic” among the crew and their families.
One former senior military spokesman found that hard to believe.
“The idea that it got out there and it created panic among families — you don't think the families didn't already know what was going on on that ship? You don’t think the sailors weren’t already telling their families what was happening on the ship? That’s ridiculous,” said David Lapan, retired Marine Corps colonel who served as the top spokesman for the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Marine Corps.
“It’s more believable that the letter would cause the families to be upset that the Navy wasn’t taking the right steps to protect their loved ones.”
The decision to relieve Crozier of command drew quick criticism, including from one member of Congress.
“I have a really hard time believing this. This deserves investigation,” tweeted Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic presidential candidate from Hawaii, whose district includes Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor.
John Kirby, a retired rear admiral who served as the State Department's head spokesman from 2015 to 2017, tweeted, "I understand the 'trust & confidence' argument. It’s sacrosanct in the Navy. But based on justification put forth by acting SECNAV for why he lost trust & confidence in the TR CO, hard to see it as anything other than an over-reaction & unwarranted at a vital time for the ship."
Said Lapan, “There are so many flaws in how the Navy is explaining this that it’s causing people to question what the real reasons are."
Of Modly's suggestion that Crozier should have contacted him directly, Lapan said it directly contradicts the secretary's reasoning for the firing.
“You’re the acting secretary of the navy. You're going to suggest an O-6 ship captain coming directly to you is not going outside the chain of command? Everyone above that O-6 would have been furious,” said Lapan.
Modly said Crozier also misrepresented the state of affairs aboard the carrier to him. Asked how, he said the skipper told him that “50 sailors would die,” which the secretary said was not based on facts. Modley alleged that Crozier told him the handful of ventilators aboard the ship was sufficient, which the secretary said was inconsistent with the alarm being sounded.
Modly said the letter also created the misperception that the aircraft carrier was not ready to fight if necessary.
In his letter, Crozier wrote that the carrier could still go into battle and win, because “in combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime. However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”
Modly had indicated on Wednesday he was not inclined to fire the captain. But during Thursday's brief press conference, he said he had informed Defense Secretary Mark Esper that he was leaning toward relieving Crozier, and he said Esper had promised to support him in whatever decision he made. Modly also said there had been “absolutely no pressure” from the White House.
An hour after Modly spoke, President Trump was asked at his own early-evening press conference whether the skipper was being punished for trying to help his sailors. "No, I don't think so at all," Trump said. "I don't agree with that at all. Not at all, Not even a little bit."
The acting secretary added that he doesn’t want or expect Crozier's relief to chill other commanders who might need to sound an alarm.
“We want that information coming up to us through the chain of command,” he said.
Lapan said it sends mixed signals, at best.
“What signal does this send to the fleet?” he said. “Relieving that commander under these conditions makes it appear to be retaliation. It makes it appear the Navy is more interesting in not being embarrassed rather than taking care of sailors.”
Especially, he said, when one day earlier Modly was calling for commanders to be honest about what they need.
“It makes it appear that you really don’t want them to be honest.”