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Elephants in the Room

6 Key Questions About the Trump Administration’s Firing of Captain Crozier

The affair surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt lays bare the dysfunction of civilian-military relations under Trump.

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) speaks alongside Vice President Mike Pence (left) and Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk during a press briefing in Washington on April 5.
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) speaks alongside Vice President Mike Pence (left) and Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk during a press briefing in Washington on April 5. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Capt. Brett Crozier, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was sacked by his superiors for complaining about the U.S. Navy’s handling of his request for assistance as COVID-19 spread among the 5,000 officers and sailors on his ship. Of these, more than 150 others, including Crozier himself, have now tested positive for the disease. Many see Crozier as a hero who did the best for his crew, while others blame him for going outside the chain of command. The Crozier case will not be closed, however, until there is a full investigation that answers the following questions:

Should the Navy have let the Roosevelt continue to sail and make port calls as the pandemic was brewing?

Maintaining a military presence—the basis of deterrence—in the Pacific is an important mission and remains important even now, even if the pandemic has rightly become a top priority. That said, a more forward-looking approach might have been to maintain readiness while reducing the pace of operations, as other branches of the armed forces did when they delayed training exercises, for example. But from the very top, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was loudly broadcasting the opposite message: Aside from a few travel restrictions, it was business as usual.

A thorough review will undoubtedly uncover some sloppiness during port visits, but this is not the heart of the matter. More likely, the review will raise troubling questions about strategic balance and find better wisdom in more aggressively slowing operations in the face of a looming pandemic—at least in hindsight. It will also point to the need to better stockpile military readiness that is not compromised by reduced operations.  While I’m inclined to side with Crozier, I also doubt that the final result of the inquiry will look as black and white as the media reaction suggests.

Was Crozier right to want to offload a significant fraction of his crew, even if that made the Roosevelt unable to complete its mission?

Most people probably sympathize with the commander’s argument that since we are not at war, the risk to the health and lives of his crew favored taking the aircraft carrier offline. I would have wanted to do the same if I had been in his shoes; had I been advising his superiors, I think I would have counseled the request be approved.

But most reactions that sided with the skipper and criticized his chain of command for being slow have been too simplistic. The logistics of offloading his crew in the middle of the mission—at the U.S. base on the island of Guam—would have been highly complex, and the potential for compounding the disaster by overwhelming medical resources in Guam or spreading the disease at a strategically important military location was a real concern. The United States also still has other interests beyond defeating the pandemic, and taking a carrier offline entails balancing considerations that are above Crozier’s pay grade.

That said, the skipper was right to focus on the immediate health of his crew. In a well-functioning chain of command, the skipper makes his request, which is then weighed against other considerations he is not competent to assess. While I’m inclined to side with Crozier—and expect a review to find that his superiors could have moved more quickly—I also doubt that the final result will look as black and white as the media reaction suggests.

Was Crozier right to take his concerns directly to acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, and was Modly right to get personally involved?

This may seem a technical question, but it gets at how the Trump administration’s dysfunctional politics have affected what used to be solely military concerns. When Crozier was dissatisfied with the response he was getting from his superiors, he apparently jumped several layers of command to involve Modly. This is not shocking, since Crozier felt he was being stonewalled by the same people who had earlier decided not to slow down operations.

In doing so, however, he was inviting heavy-handed interference. Modly had made clear in media interviews that he was obsessed with how any story might play inside the White HouseIn media interviews, Modly has made  clear that he was obsessed with how any story might play inside the White House. and had therefore gotten involved in day-to-day military deliberations to a greater degree than Navy tradition and the chain of command would expect. Modly was keenly aware that Trump had sacked his predecessor when an internal Navy matter made it to Fox News—and was thus eager to micromanage anything that could gain media attention.

In jumping the chain in such a politically dysfunctional environment, Crozier probably put future promotions in jeopardy because his letter was tantamount to a dramatic and loud critique of multiple superiors. But when Modly similarly jumped the usual chain of command by making the decision to dismiss Crozier himself, he likewise made it harder for the Navy staff to do its job. The result is a compromised chain of command, damaging far more than the relationship between Crozier and his immediate superiors.

Was Crozier right to send his protest letter to so many people, and was the leaker right to send it to the press?

Whether or not Crozier personally leaked his letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, he seems to have deliberately made it easy to leak. He gave his letter no classification restrictions and sent it over open systems to an exceptionally large number of people. The skipper considered what he was doing as akin to firing off a signal flare—explicitly trying to make his situation visible to all. But it was also clearly aimed at bringing external pressure to bear on his superiors. Whether this is forgivable, in an ethical sense, depends on whether the leak accelerated the rescue of the stricken sailors. At the same time, there were plenty of other ways Crozier could have been punished short of removal. Whether the right balance was struck is unclear.

Was Modly right to sack Crozier, and, if so, was he right to sack him so quickly?

I suspect Crozier knew he would be relieved of his command when he arranged for the letter to be easily leaked. The only question was when. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called Crozier’s dismissal “close to criminal,” but that overstates the case. Modly had the authority, and Crozier is not the first skipper to have lost his command for an act of defiance. Moreover, Modly could claim many plausible reasons for relieving Crozier. After several false starts, Modly finally concluded that the skipper was “panicking” and therefore unreliable in a military crisis.

However, it is clear that Modly was panicking himself—acting in haste out of fear that if he delayed, Trump would sack him as he had fired his predecessor. At a minimum, Modly’s actions were tone-deaf, and he should have remained patient until the disposition of the sailors was resolved and the facts investigated. More seriously, Modly’s actions showed a lack of understanding of the morale and professionalism crisis in the Navy. And he seemed blind to the way the firing would send mixed messages to other commanders. Should they be afraid to report their own operational readiness concerns if the pandemic spreads still further?The dysfunctional interference in military discipline and the chain of command, especially concerning the Navy, originated with the president.

Finally, Modly called his own judgment into question with a profanity-laced tirade against Crozier and the media, delivered over the public address system aboard the Roosevelt. Predictably, a recording leaked, and Modly’s grip on his own job seems in jeopardy—the exact outcome he was trying to prevent by getting involved.

Has Trump handled this well?

After Biden turned Crozier’s dismissal into a partisan issue, Trump weighed in in his signature style, mocking the skipper for writing a long letter as if he were in a “class on literature.” This was graceless. The president could have endorsed the actions of his acting secretary instead of fueling a partisan debate that embroils the U.S. military. Ultimately, the blame falls on Trump, who created the command climate in which all of this operated. The pressure to downplay the virus early came from the president. The dysfunctional interference in military discipline and the chain of command, especially concerning the Navy, originated with the president.

Trump and his team are asking for the benefit of the doubt about their handling of the affair until the results of an investigation. The problem is that they have shown themselves inept at managing civilian-military relations over many months and years and have therefore not earned that benefit. Instead of building up a reservoir of trust, Trump has repeatedly and needlessly drained that reservoir, just to win a petty little news cycle or two. When the Crozier affair hit, the reservoir was empty.

Even if a careful investigation ends up mostly vindicating Trump and Modly’s side of the argument, the damage is already done. If the investigation finds in favor of Crozier, the damage to civilian-military relations will be even more profound.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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