WASHINGTON — The Navy is looking into whether it can reinstate Capt. Brett E. Crozier, who was removed from command of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt after he pleaded for more help fighting a novel coronavirus outbreak aboard his ship, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, has indicated that he may reinstate Crozier, who is viewed as a hero by his crew for putting their lives above his career, officials said.
“No final decisions have been made,” Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the admiral, said in a statement on Wednesday to The New York Times. Christensen added that Gilday was reviewing the findings of a preliminary investigation into the events surrounding Crozier’s removal.
But Gilday’s decision could be upended by President Donald Trump, who has not been shy about intervening in military personnel cases. Only five months ago, Trump fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer for opposing the president’s intervention in support of a member of the Navy SEALs accused of murdering a wounded captive with a hunting knife during a deployment to Iraq in 2017.
No one in the Navy wants those events to be repeated, which included a Twitter admonishment by Trump of how the branch’s leaders handled the SEALs case. But Navy officials insist that Gilday will make a decision based on the findings of the investigation into the Roosevelt crisis, and not on what he believes the president wants him to do.
Trump himself has indicated he may be open to reassessing the events around the firing. He said recently that Crozier “made a mistake,” but he also noted that the captain “had a bad day.” It remained unclear how the president would view a move to reinstate Crozier, or when action would be taken.
Crozier, who is in isolation on Guam with coronavirus, was removed from command on April 2 by Thomas Modly, the acting Navy secretary at the time. The decision drew outrage among the carrier’s crew and across the country and eventually led to Modly’s resignation.
Gilday and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had both cautioned Modly not to fire Crozier until after an investigation into the case has been completed. Modly, believing Trump wanted the captain dismissed, ignored them, officials said.
As of Wednesday, 615 Roosevelt crew members have tested positive for coronavirus; five are in the hospital with one in intensive care, and one has died. The death of the sailor on Monday was a poignant punctuation to Crozier’s plea for help on March 30, after four days in which his superiors rebuffed his request to evacuate the ship. In an emailed letter, he wrote, “Sailors don’t need to die.”
That plea, sent to 20 Navy personnel, became public and angered Modly, which led to his decision to remove the captain from his post.
Gilday indicated last week that he was open to reinstating Crozier once the preliminary investigation was completed. “I am taking no options off the table as I review that investigation,” he told reporters. “I think that is my responsibility.”
Any decision to reinstate Crozier would come with its own problems. Navy officials remain unhappy that the captain sent an unclassified letter seeking help to so many people, instead of relying on his chain of command. For the Navy to reinstate him, Gilday would have to determine that Crozier’s superiors were not being adequately responsive to requests for help before the letter had been sent, Navy officials said.
Gilday already has the findings of an initial investigation into the Roosevelt case. But that investigation was conducted by Adm. Robert Burke, the Navy’s second-highest admiral, who was involved in the situation aboard Roosevelt. As part of the investigation, Burke called the senior medical officer aboard the ship and criticized the doctor, saying he had failed as a leader, according to crew members.
In the run-up to Crozier’s letter, the ship’s medical staff and the captain advocated swift, decisive action, while Crozier’s immediate boss, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, countered that less drastic measures would still protect the crew and leave the Roosevelt in operation.
Gilday told reporters this month that the investigation would focus in part on why Crozier, a Naval Academy graduate with nearly 30 years of service, felt compelled to send his four-page letter outside normal communications channels and whether that illustrated a breakdown in communications with his chain of command, particularly with Baker. The Navy has said Crozier did not copy Baker on his letter.
Before the results are made public, Gilday will consult with the new acting Navy secretary, James McPherson, as well as with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Milley.
“The Navy investigation now in progress should take its time and make sure we truly understand the detailed ‘ticktock’ of events that preceded the letter launched by Capt. Crozier,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former top commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “If it becomes clear that his chain of command was not responsive, it makes a potential case for rehabilitation much stronger.”
Esper, the Pentagon’s top civilian, has not indicated where he stands on the investigation. Appearing on Fox News on Wednesday, he appeared to acknowledge that he might eventually have to weigh in. “At some point it likely will come to me,” he said. “But the most important thing though is taking care of our sailors who are now in Guam.”
The investigation will not examine why the Roosevelt, and its nearly 5,000 crew members, made a long-scheduled, four-day port call in Da Nang, Vietnam, beginning on March 5, despite reported cases of coronavirus in the country.
The top U.S. military officer in Pacific, Adm. Philip Davidson, ordered the visit to proceed as a show of military might in a region increasingly worried about China’s growing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Navy and Pentagon officials have since defended the decision, saying there were only a handful of reported coronavirus cases, mostly in the northern part of the country, at the time the Roosevelt pulled in. Navy officials publicly say they are not sure how the virus got aboard the ship, but privately acknowledge that it almost certainly happened during the port call.
In Guam, many among the Roosevelt’s crew say they are hoping Crozier will return as their captain. One crew member described the commander as prescient during every chapter of the crisis. While the ship’s interim commander, Capt. Carlos Sardiello, who commanded the Roosevelt previously, is viewed favorably by much of the crew, he is not seen to be as receptive to them as Crozier was when he was in charge.