WASHINGTON — The Navy removed the captain of the stricken aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt on Thursday, only days after he implored his superior officers for more help as a coronavirus outbreak spread aboard the ship.
In a letter that leaked to news organizations Tuesday, Capt. Brett Crozier laid out the dire situation unfolding on the warship, with almost 5,000 crew members, and described what he said were the Navy’s failures to provide the proper resources to combat the virus by moving sailors off the vessel and disinfecting areas on board.
About 114 sailors have been infected so far, a number that is expected to rise by hundreds as the vessel remains docked at Guam.
Senior Defense Department officials were angry that the letter found its way first to The San Francisco Chronicle and then to other news outlets, where it was widely reported.
Thomas Modly, the acting Navy secretary, said Crozier was fired because the growing coronavirus outbreak “overwhelmed his ability to act professionally.” The leadership issue, Modly noted, was that Crozier did not go through the military’s formal chain of command but sent the letter on an unclassified email system to 20 to 30 people.
The letter created a panic on the ship and among the crew’s families when it was made public, Modly said. He noted that there was no evidence that Crozier leaked the message.
“In sending it out pretty broadly, he did not take care to ensure that it couldn’t be leaked,” Modly said. “And that’s part of his responsibility.”
The captain demonstrated “extremely poor judgment” by not taking his concerns directly to his immediate superior, an admiral also aboard the Roosevelt, even though the Navy’s 7th Fleet in Japan was sending medical supplies to the ship, Modly said.
“It raised alarm bells unnecessarily,” Modly said.
Modly said he made the decision on his own with no pressure from Defense Secretary Mark Esper or the White House.
But from the start of the crisis, Esper has warned his commanders not to make decisions related to the coronavirus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of President Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge. And he has emphasized maintaining military readiness to conduct all missions even while protecting the force from infection.
The Navy tried to frame the decision to remove Crozier as one about loss of confidence and not retribution for the letter. But in firing a captain who complained that the Navy was not doing enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the Navy opened itself to criticism that it was insufficiently concerned about the health of its sailors.
Modly stressed that he welcomed blunt assessments from subordinate officers, but the removal of Crozier could have a chilling effect, a point made by members of Congress.
Lawmakers reacted angrily, and some reached out to Pentagon officials to urge them to reconsider removing the captain from his post, people familiar with the conversations said.
“I learned on my first day in the Marines that having the courage to speak truth to power is grounds for respect, not grounds for relief,” Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. and a former Marine, wrote Thursday afternoon on Twitter. “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.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, along with top subcommittee leaders — Reps. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Jackie Speier of California and John Garamendi of California — condemned the move, although they acknowledged that Crozier might have made missteps in his handling of the situation.
“Captain Crozier was justifiably concerned about the health and safety of his crew, but he did not handle the immense pressure appropriately,” the lawmakers said. “However, relieving him of his command is an overreaction.
“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS. Theodore Roosevelt,” the lawmakers added. “What’s more, we are very concerned about the chilling effect this dismissal will have on commanders throughout the Department of Defense. Dismissing a commanding officer for speaking out on issues critical to the safety of those under their command discourages others from raising similar concerns.”
At least one lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., called for Crozier’s reinstatement, saying that “dismissing him sends a dangerous message to our leaders across the military.”
Crozier also had come under some internal criticism from Defense Department officials who said he should not have allowed sailors to go ashore last month in Da Nang, Vietnam.
But other Navy officials defended that decision, saying that, at the time, most of the coronavirus cases in Vietnam were in the north of the country, far from where the Roosevelt made its port call.
On Wednesday, Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, called the stop in Vietnam, where the virus may have been transmitted to those aboard the ship, a “risk-informed decision.”
“At the time, there were about 15 or 16 cases, they were up north in Hanoi, and the ship pulled into Da Nang,” Gilday said. “Today, there are 203 cases in Vietnam and no deaths.”
Navy officials also said the virus might have come aboard not in Vietnam but as Navy personnel boarded the carrier while it was underway.
Standing alongside Gilday, Modly told reporters Wednesday that he welcomed the captain’s decision to express his concerns — but that the captain would be punished if he were responsible for leaking the letter to the news media.
“I don’t know who leaked the letter to the media,” Modly said. “That would be something that would violate the principles of good order and discipline if he were responsible for that.”
On Thursday, Modly announced that he had lost confidence in Crozier and was removing him from his post.