Report

Navy Delays Reinstating Captain of Infected Carrier

U.S. Navy says it will extend the investigation into the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, suggesting questions persist about the actions of the ship’s fired skipper.

Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses the crew in San Diego on Jan. 17.
Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses the crew in San Diego on Jan. 17. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Alexander Williams
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The U.S. Navy has expanded an investigation into the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, delaying the restoration of command to Capt. Brett Crozier, who pushed for the service to more aggressively combat the outbreak on the nuclear-powered ship.

In a statement on Wednesday, acting Secretary of the Navy James McPherson said he had directed the service’s top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, to conduct a deeper investigation after both men briefed Defense Secretary Mark Esper on their findings on Friday, recommending that the Pentagon chief reinstate Crozier.

“Following our discussion, I have unanswered questions that the preliminary inquiry has identified and that can only be answered by a deeper review,” McPherson said. “Therefore, I am directing Adm. Gilday to conduct a follow-on command investigation. This investigation will build on the good work of the initial inquiry to provide a more fulsome understanding of the sequence of events, actions, and decisions of the chain of command surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt.”

Crozier became a symbol of the Navy’s—and the U.S. military’s—struggle to deal with the spread of the coronavirus in the close-quartered world of military operations. The captain sent a dire missive to Navy leaders warning about the rapid spread of the virus aboard the ship that leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, prompting his ouster at the hands of then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

Modly subsequently resigned after traveling to Guam and delivering a broadside against Crozier over the Roosevelt’s public address system, and the Navy, led by Gilday, lobbied for the popular commander’s reinstatement after wrapping up a preliminary investigation last week. The investigation into what happened on the Roosevelt could well set a precedent for future command decisions about the pandemic.

But after Friday’s briefing, Esper insisted he needed more time to review the findings. Politico reported on Saturday that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was pushing for a wider inquiry into outbreak on the Roosevelt, which would delay Crozier’s reinstatement despite the Navy’s recommendations.

“The Navy’s inquiry covered a complex timeline of communications between Naval officers, as well as response efforts spanning a dozen time zones and multiple commands. All this information was briefed verbally today in a meeting scheduled for one hour,” a senior defense official told Foreign Policy at the time. “The Secretary wants to ensure that 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. To ensure that, he wants to actually read the report.”

It is not clear how long the new investigation will take, though defense officials have indicated it will leave more time for the defense secretary to make a politically sensitive decision surrounding Crozier. But members of Congress briefed on the report said that so far the Defense Department had not been pressured by the White House on the next moves in the case.

President Donald Trump said at a White House briefing earlier this month that he supported the decision to fire Crozier but did not comment on the Navy’s initial recommendation to reinstate him, which could be overturned by the new probe.

Though defense officials said last week that Esper would be “generally inclined” to support the Navy’s findings, a move to go ahead with Gilday’s recommendation could also represent an about-face for Esper. The defense secretary had previously signed off on Modly’s decision to fire Crozier and publicly defended the move, telling CNN it was an “example of how we hold leaders accountable.”

But while Democratic lawmakers agreed that it was legitimate to extend the investigation into the Roosevelt outbreak and the decisions of senior leaders as the Navy deals with the spread of the coronavirus aboard the destroyer USS Kidd, which pulled into port in San Diego on Tuesday, they remained displeased with the decision not to reinstate Crozier, the skipper of the Roosevelt was fired by Modly after a warning letter about the situation on the ship leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

“I believe that question should have been clearly answered to this point. I believe it should be answered in the affirmative. There was no reason to relieve him of his command,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, after speaking to McPherson, the acting navy secretary, on Wednesday.

Smith said he’s worried that the Pentagon could fall into a “willingness to kiss the president’s ass as much as possible.” House Democrats have called for a hearing on the matter as Congress prepares to return to session next week.

The Navy says it has now tested all of the Roosevelt’s crew for the coronavirus, with 940 positive cases as of Monday, after aerial resupply crews likely brought the virus onboard during a March port visit to Da Nang, Vietnam. The Pentagon has now canceled port visits for aircraft carriers for the time being.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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