(C) Reuters. Captain Brett Crozier addresses the crew for the first time as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt
By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly gave a surprise speech to the crew of the coronavirus-stricken carrier Theodore Roosevelt and defended his decision to fire their revered captain, calling him either “stupid” or ill-willed, U.S. officials told Reuters.
One of the officials said Modly’s comments angered the crew, who were already upset at his surprise decision on Thursday to relieve Captain Brett Crozier of his command of the Theodore Roosevelt. The crew applauded Crozier when he was forced out following the leak of his scathing letter calling for the Navy to take stronger action to halt the spread of the coronavirus aboard the carrier.
President Donald Trump has also been criticized for the decision to relieve Crozier of command. Democrats in Congress have called for an investigation by the Pentagon’s independent Inspector General, while Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden said Modly “shot the messenger.”
A U.S. official confirmed that Modly explained his decision to relieve the captain of command, saying: “If he didn’t think, in my opinion, 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.”
“The alternative is that he did this on purpose.”
The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Modly made the speech over the weekend while the ship was docked in Guam, and it was broadcast on the ship’s speakers. The news that Modly said the captain may have been stupid was first reported by Reuters.
Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine said Modly’s speech was disappointing.
“Based on the transcript I’ve read, Secretary Modly’s comments were completely inappropriate and beneath the office of the Secretary of the Navy,” Kaine said.
Crozier’s crew members showed their disapproval of Modly’s decision by posting videos online last week of their captain’s emotional sendoff. Sailors applauded Crozier and hailed him as a hero, out to defend his crew at great cost to his career.
In an interview with Reuters on Friday, Modly said he did not know if Crozier would face disciplinary action, saying it would be up to a probe that will look into issues surrounding “communications” and the chain of command that led to the incident.
Crozier, who took command in November and is believed to have tested positive for the virus, wrote a four-page letter describing a bleak situation aboard the carrier as more of his crew began falling ill.
He called for “decisive action”: removing more than 4,000 sailors from the ship and isolating them, and wrote that unless the Navy acted immediately it would be failing to properly safeguard “our most trusted asset – our sailors.”
The letter put the Pentagon on the defensive and alarmed families of those on the vessel, whose home port is in San Diego. Modly has said that Crozier failed to safeguard the confidentiality of the letter.
One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said military officials had recommended against firing Crozier, including Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday, arguing that it was better for an investigation to be complete.
The official said it did not appear that Trump spoke with Modly before the firing, but Modly was made aware that the White House wanted Crozier to be relieved of his command.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday defended Modly’s decision to remove the commander.
Acting U.S. Navy chief says fired ship captain may have been ‘stupid’: officials