WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has deferred a decision about the future of an aircraft carrier captain who was relieved of command after he raised concerns about the Navy’s handling of a sprawling coronavirus outbreak on his ship, defense officials said Friday.
The delay comes after the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, told reporters earlier in the day that senior Navy officials would brief Defense Secretary Mark Esper about an inquiry into what happened with the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its former commander, Navy Capt. Brett Crozier.
Several other defense officials said they expected a conclusion to be announced afterward. But as the afternoon wound down, the Navy acknowledged that no decision was forthcoming. Two people familiar with the issue, including one senior defense official, said administration officials wanted more time to review their options.
Hoffman said in a statement that Esper had received a “verbal update” from senior Navy officials about the inquiry into the Theodore Roosevelt outbreak.
“After the Secretary receives a written copy of the completed inquiry, he intends to thoroughly review the report and will meet again with Navy leadership to discuss next steps,” Hoffman said. “He remains focused on and committed to restoring the full health of the crew and getting the ship at sea again soon.”
The delay comes after days of speculation that the Navy could reinstate Crozier, who was removed from his job after sending a memo to senior Navy officials that raised alarm about how quickly the service was moving to test and quarantine sailors aboard his ship.
Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, has said he was open to Crozier’s reinstatement and recommended that on Friday, a person familiar with the discussions said Friday. The New York Times first reported the recommendation.
The Navy said in a statement that no final decisions have been made.
“Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has presented recommendations to the Acting Secretary of the Navy James McPherson. Secretary McPherson is continuing discussions with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper,” it said.
Another senior defense official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Esper’s briefing with Navy officials on Friday took about an hour. The inquiry is “in fact about far more than one person,” so Esper wants to ensure the report is thorough and can “stand up under the rightful scrutiny of Congress, the media, the families and crew of the Theodore Roosevelt, and the American people,” the official said.
President Donald Trump expressed an interest this month in reviewing Crozier’s case, after videos of sailors chanting their captain’s name as he left the ship went viral.
Though Trump initially lambasted Crozier for writing the memo, he later softened his tone, saying that he was impressed with the officer’s overall record and didn’t “want to destroy” Crozier over “a bad day.”
The Navy said Friday that it had just completed testing the crew for the coronavirus. The service reported 856 positive cases among 4,954 tests, about 17%. One Theodore Roosevelt sailor, Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., 41, died April 13 after testing positive on March 30.
Crozier, as captain of one of the Navy’s most powerful strategic weapons, was on a fast track to becoming an admiral when he sent an email and memo on March 30 that pleaded for more help in evacuating, testing and quarantining sailors from his crew in Guam after the outbreak.
The March 31 publication of the memo in the San Francisco Chronicle prompted Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to remove Crozier from command, citing bad judgment. Modly alleged that Crozier had sent his message to 20 or 30 people, but a copy of his email obtained by The Washington Post later showed that he actually sent it to three admirals, and copied seven other Navy captains.
“I fully realize that I bear responsibility for not demanding more decisive action the moment we pulled in, but at this point my only priority is the continued well-being of the crew and embarked staff,” Crozier wrote in the email, obtained by The Post. “. . . I believe if there is ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career.”
Modly resigned on April 7, one day after flying from Washington to Guam to visit the crew and delivering a speech in which he insulted Crozier and lectured sailors for supporting him. Crozier, Modly said, had either written the memo to be leaked to the media, or was “too naive or too stupid” to be commanding officer of the ship.
Modly later apologized.
Trump, as commander in chief, has the authority to intervene in Crozier’s case. But it would be highly uncommon for a president to sway an administrative decision in the military.
The sensitivity comes after Trump created turmoil in the service last year by repeatedly weighing in on the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with a corpse in Iraq. Esper fired former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer in November after the senior Navy official went directly to the White House and sought to keep Trump from getting involved in administrative discipline for Gallagher.
On Friday, the Pentagon also disclosed that the Navy is coping with a new coronavirus outbreak on a warship at sea, with at least 18 cases emerging on the destroyer USS Kidd.
The outbreak became evident after a sailor aboard the vessel developed symptoms associated with the virus, and the Navy flew the individual to San Antonio, Texas, for testing.
“They are preparing to return to port, where they will undertake efforts to clean the ship,” Hoffman told reporters Friday. “They will remove a portion of the crew from the ship and work to get everybody back to health and get the ship back to sea.”
The destroyer, which typically deploys with a crew and aviation detachment of more than 350 people, had been deployed this month in the Pacific Ocean as part of a military task force that carries out drug interdiction, according to the ship’s Facebook page. Its home port is in Everett, Washington.
“Testing continues, and we expect additional cases,” the Navy said in a statement. “All measures are being taken to evaluate the extent of the COVID-19 transmission on the ship.”