Defense Secretary Mark Esper insisted on Sunday that the firing of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer was not prompted by White House complaints and that military leaders will conduct a full investigation into the incident.
In an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Esper backed the decision by acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to dismiss Capt. Brett Crozier.
“I think Secretary Modly laid out very reasonably and very deliberately the reasons (for the firing),” he said. “And I think when all those facts come to bear, we’ll have a chance to understand why Secretary Modly did what he did.”
On Thursday, Crozier was dismissed from his command in the wake of a leaked letter he wrote pleading for help to stifle a coronavirus outbreak on the 4,800-person aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.
Crozier had proposed that the ship be mostly evacuated and the majority of his sailors moved into isolated quarantine in Guam.
On Sunday, Esper confirmed that 155 sailors on the ship have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, but not have suffered any serious medical symptoms as a result of the illness.
“First and foremost, we need to take care of the sailors on the ship,” Esper said. “We need to ensure their well being and get that ship back out to sea as soon as possible.”
Crozier’s letter, which was first published by the San Francisco Chronicle, was reportedly sent up the captain’s immediate chain of command in a “non-secure, unclassified” email that included “20 or 30” additional recipients, Modly told reporters Thursday.
“[The letter] misrepresented the facts of what was going on,” Modly said. “Okay, that’s just not acceptable. … When I have a commanding officer who’s responsible for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, with all that lethality and all that responsibility … that demonstrated extremely poor judgement in the middle of a crisis.”
Crozier’s dismissal has prompted fierce criticism of the Navy and administration from an array of Democratic lawmakers and former military officials. On Saturday, President Donald Trump defended the firing, calling Crozier’s actions extreme.
“I thought it was terrible what he did to write a letter,” Trump said. “I mean, this isn't a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that is nuclear powered, and he shouldn't be talking that way in a letter.
“He could call and ask … I thought it was inappropriate. I agree with their decision 100 percent.”
Trump said he was not involved in the firing decision. But CNN reported that Modly told colleagues that Crozier’s firing came because Trump wanted the commander punished.
On Sunday, Esper denied that was the case.
“This decision wasn’t made by President Trump,” he said. “”It was Secretary Modly’s decision. He briefed me about it, and I took the advice of the Chief of Naval Operations (Adm. Michael Gilday) and (Joint Chiefs Chairman) Gen. Mark Milley with regard to it. And I told him I would support his decision.”
Esper said a full investigation into the letter and senior leadership response to it is underway. But he said he did not see the firing as premature.
“All of the services at times have relieved commanders without the benefit of an investigation upfront, because they've lost confidence in them,” he said. “It's certainly not unique to the Navy. And the Navy has a culture of swiftly and decisively removing captains if they lose confidence in them.”
Esper did not respond to specific criticism related to the firings of the guided missile destroyer John McCain and the guided missile destroyer Fitzgerald after fatal collisions aboard both ships. Those firings took weeks longer than Crozier’s, and happened only after investigations into the accidents were finished.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.