Twenty-four hours after the Navy's top leaders said they need commanding officers to be candid about problems, the captain of a coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier who pleaded for help has been relieved of command.
Capt. Brett Crozier, who commanded the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, was removed from his job after a letter he wrote about the situation on his ship was sent to people outside his chain of command, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said.
"The responsibility for this decision rests with me," Modly said. "I expect no congratulations for it and it gives me no pleasure in making it. Captain Crozier is an honorable man who, despite this uncharacteristic lapse of judgment, has dedicated himself throughout a lifetime of incredible service to our nation, and he should be proud of that."
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said he supported Modly's decision.
The pair discussed Crozier's letter at length with reporters Wednesday and said, while disappointed it leaked to the press, that it was not inappropriate for the captain to raise concerns about the situation on his ship with his chain of command.
"I don't know who leaked the letter to the media -- that would be something that would violate the principles of good order if he were responsible for that, but I don't know that," Modly said Wednesday.
On Thursday, Modly said he still didn't know whether Crozier leaked the letter to his hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.
But sending it to anyone outside the chain of command, "who had been moving and adjusting as rapidly as possible to get him the help he needed," undermined the process, Modly said.
"For these reasons, I lost confidence in his ability to continue to lead that warship as it fights through this virus to get the crew healthy," he added.
Much remains unclear about how Modly arrived at his decision to fire Crozier after both he and Gilday implied yesterday that raising concerns about the health and safety of his sailors was not out of line.
Modly on Thursday said Crozier did send the letter to his chain of command, but also copied 20 to 30 others on the email. That was inappropriate, Modly added. He said Crozier should have instead "walked down the hallway" to speak to his commanding officer.
"It's not a blast-out email to anybody who he knows about the situation," Modly said during the sometimes-heated Thursday press conference.
The letter's going public raised unnecessary panic on the ship, the acting Navy secretary added.
"The chief petty officers were not prepared to answer questions from the crew in terms of how bad the situation was," Modly said. "[The letter] misrepresented the facts of what was going on on the ship as well. And at the same time, the families here in the United States were panicked about the reality of what's happening on the ship."
Crozier warned that a failure to evacuate the carrier's crew would result in rapid spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Modly said 114 sailors who have tested positive, adding "with great certainty there's going to be more."
"That'll probably be in the hundreds," he said.
But Crozier should have called him or another superior directly if he was concerned about the situation deteriorating, Modly added.
Instead, he said, Crozier created doubt about the Navy's ability to handle the situation on the Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft. That was "a completely unnecessary thing," Modly said.
He acknowledged that commanding officers aren't trained for the type of crisis they're currently facing in the coronavirus pandemic.
"But we expect more from our COs than what they trained for," he said. "We expect them to exercise good judgment that does not put their crews in jeopardy and is not jeopardizing the national security mission in the United States."
Modly sought to assure the Roosevelt's crew members during the period of turmoil, telling them "no one cares more than I do about their safety and welfare."
"I am entirely convinced that your commanding officer loves you and that he had you at the center of his heart in mind and every decision that he has made," Modly said. "I also know that you have great affection and love for him as well, but it's my responsibility to ensure that his love and concern for you is matched, if not exceeded by, his sober and professional judgment under pressure."
Modly said no one from the White House influenced his decision to relieve Crozier. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was aware of his decision, Modly said, and added he was told he had the secretary's support.
Lawmakers have been quick to blast the Navy's handling of the situation. In a joint statement, members of the House Armed Services Committee called Modly's decision to remove Crozier from his job an overreaction, and said they fear it'll have a chilling effect when it comes to commanders reporting problems.
"While Captain Crozier clearly went outside the chain of command, his dismissal at this critical moment -- as the Sailors aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt are confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic -- is a destabilizing move that will likely put our service members at greater risk and jeopardize our fleet's readiness," the statement from House Democrats adds.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a veteran Marine officer, said he learned on his first day in uniform that speaking truth to power is not grounds for relief.
"This is far from the first time in the last several years that Congress is going to have a lot of questions for Navy leadership -- on leadership," Moulton tweeted on Thursday.
Capt. Dan Keeler, the Roosevelt's executive officer, has temporarily assumed command of the ship, Modly said. Rear Adm. (sel.) Carlos Sardiello, who previously commanded the carrier, will replace Crozier.
"He is extremely well acquainted with the ship, many members of his crew and the operations and the capabilities of the ship itself," Modly said. "He's the best person in the Navy right now to take command under these unusual circumstances."