The Pentagon on Sunday scrambled to tamp down a growing firestorm over last week’s dismissal of a Navy captain who warned that the coronavirus was overrunning his ship and his sailors were in grave danger, with the incident dividing lawmakers and former top military officials while sparking another personnel controversy inside the Defense Department.
A day after President Trump publicly backed the firing of USS Theodore Roosevelt Capt. Brett Crozier, Defense Secretary Mark Esper appeared on several Sunday morning talk shows and vehemently defended the move.
At the same time, he also stressed that the Pentagon is doing everything in its power to ensure the safety of the 4,000 crew members aboard the Roosevelt, at least 155 of whom have now tested positive for COVID-19. Capt. Crozier also has tested positive for the virus, according to The New York Times.
The nuclear-powered vessel is now docked in Guam as the sailors enter a two-week quarantine period, though Mr. Esper said it will be impossible to get everyone off the Roosevelt and that some crew must be left on board to operate critical equipment.
“We need to take care of the sailors on the ship. We need to ensure their well-being and get that ship back out to sea as soon as possible,” Mr. Esper told CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
Of the 155 positive sailors, he said, the illnesses “are all mild to moderate. There have been no hospitalizations whatsoever. The crew is being taken care of out there.”
Mr. Esper’s comments pushed back against a narrative that the military had acted too slowly and had put needlessly endangered the Roosevelt’s sailors, concerns. Capt. Crozier laid out in blunt terms last week in an internal letter to Navy leadership that was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle.
“We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily,” he wrote in the letter.
Days later, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly fired Capt. Crozier and said the letter could have sent a dangerous signal to enemies that the U.S. military was compromised.
The president, who has been willing to inject himself into Pentagon personnel matters and to criticize military leaders, defended the decision.
“I agree with their decision 100%,” he said Saturday during a press briefing at the White House.
“I thought it was terrible what he did, to write a letter,” the president said. “I mean, this isn’t a class in literature — this is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered.”
Mr. Esper sounded a similar note Sunday.
“It’s just another example of how we hold leaders accountable for their actions,” he said, adding that the Pentagon has launched a full investigation.
Mr. Trump, Mr. Modly and other top officials have said that there were other avenues through which Capt. Crozier could have raised his concerns that wouldn’t have resulted in public disclosure about ship and crew readiness. Mr. Modly told reporters last week that Capt. Crozier did not “relay the various levels of alarm” to Navy leadership, and that top officials learned of it only after the Chronicle published the letter.
But critics say the firing of Capt. Crozier sends exactly the wrong message at the worst possible time. Lawmakers and former top Pentagon officials argued that by relieving the captain of his command at such a crucial moment, the military could dampen morale — a notion that gained credence last week when Roosevelt sailors cheered and applauded Capt. Crozier as he departed the ship.
“It was an unwarranted firing, reckless in its timing and petty in appearances,” retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, a former spokesman for the Pentagon and State Department, wrote in a piece for CNN. “And Modly’s decision to dismiss Crozier could have a chilling effect on other commanding officers in similar circumstances, making them fearful of speaking up and thereby negatively impacting the Navy’s ability to combat the deadly disease.”
“He was honorably fulfilling the responsibilities of his station,” the email reads in part. “But Capt. Crozier was fired for standing up for the lives of those who served under him, in yet another display of disrespect for our service members shown by Donald Trump and his administration.”
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