President Donald Trump weighed in Monday on a subject already fraught with divisive opinion, saying he “may get involved” in the COVID-19 controversy plaguing the polarizing aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt following a speech by acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly to the ship’s crew.
“You know what, you have two good people and they’re arguing,” Trump said Monday during a White House briefing. “And I’m good, believe it or not, at settling arguments. I’m good at settling these arguments. So I may look into it in great detail. And I’ll be able to figure it out very fast.”
The “two good people” referenced by Trump are Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, relieved from his command after sending out a plea to evacuate most of the ship’s crew in the wake of a coronavirus outbreak on board, and Modly, who blasted Crozier’s handling of the situation Monday morning in Guam, adding more fuel to a public relations conflagration that is bedeviling the sea service.
In his briefing, the president criticized Crozier for sending the leaked letter over a non-secure email to “20 or 30” recipients, saying the captain should have charted a different course of action.
“Letters should not have been sent to many people — unclassified,” Trump said.
“That was a mistake. It’s a mistake that shouldn’t have been made. Because it’s unfair to the families of the people on the ship because they get nervous. And it shows weakness and there’s nothing weak about us now. Not anymore.”
Modly has also drawn heavy criticism following his swift decision to fire Crozier, whose 4,800-person crew was struggling to stifle a COVID-19 outbreak in the carriers tight quarters when he penned the letter that would cost him his job within a matter of days.
“[The letter] misrepresented the facts of what was going on,” Modly said last week. “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.”
Modly arrived Monday onboard the Theodore Roosevelt Monday to offer an explanation for his decision, which he delivered over the carrier’s intercom system.
“It was a betrayal," Modly told sailors, who just days earlier sent their commanding officer off amid rousing applause and chants of Crozier’s name as he departed the ship for the last time.
“And I can tell you one other thing: because he did that he put it in the public’s forum and it is now a big controversy in Washington, D.C. 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 naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose.”
Modly’s message to the crew sparked immediate outrage on the part of Democratic lawmakers, who have begun issuing calls for the Navy’s top civilian to be investigated — or fired.
“I disagree strongly with the manner in which acting Secretary of the Navy Modly has handled the COVID-19 outbreak on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Monday in an official statement.
"His decision to relieve Captain Crozier was at best an overreaction to the extraordinary steps the Captain took to protect his crew. Acting Secretary Modly’s decision to address the sailors on the Roosevelt and personally attack Captain Crozier shows a tone-deaf approach more focused on personal ego than one of the calm, steady leadership we so desperately need in this crisis.
“I no longer have confidence in Acting Secretary Modly’s leadership of the Navy and believe he should be removed from his position.”
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Virginia, echoed those sentiments Monday, saying, “Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s remarks to the crew show that he is in no way fit to lead our Navy through this trying time. Secretary Esper should immediately fire him.”
President Trump’s involvement as mediator, meanwhile, comes as the dispute reaches a fever pitch.
In his remarks Monday, the president appeared to take a more lenient view of Crozier than Navy brass has thus far.
“We don’t want to have letter-writing campaigns where the fake news finds a letter and gets a leak. We don’t want that,” Trump said Monday.
“With all of that said, his career prior to that was very good. ... He started off as a helicopter pilot. They called him ‘Chopper.’ He was a great helicopter pilot, it’s a tremendous skill. I know a lot about helicopters.
“So I’m going to get involved. ... I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.