Sailors reportedly 'livid' with acting Navy secretary after he blasts captain who expressed coronavirus concerns

A speech by acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to the aircraft carrier crew whose captain he relieved April 2 has exposed him to accusations of hypocrisy and led to calls for him to be fired.

Modly said Thursday that he relieved Capt. Brett Crozier for circulating too widely a memo expressing the captain’s concerns about how the Navy was handling a COVID-19 outbreak that had forced his ship, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, to remain docked in Guam.

The acting secretary doubled down on that criticism in his remarks Monday to Crozier’s crew, telling them that if the captain hadn’t realized that emailing the memo to “over 20” people meant it was likely to go public, then Crozier was either “too naive or too stupid” to be left in command.

At Monday's White House briefing of the coronavirus task force, President Trump said that he “may just get involved” in how the disciplining of Crozier was handled. “I’m good at settling these arguments,” Trump said of Modly's remarks criticizing Crozier. While Trump said he had “heard good things” about both Crozier and Modly, he did not approve of the letter Crozier had written detailing that his sailors were ill.

“It shows weakness. And there's nothing weak about us now. Not anymore,” Trump said. “We don't want to have letter-writing campaigns where the fake news finds a letter, gets a leak. We don't want that.”

Hundreds of the ship’s crew members cheered Crozier as he departed the ship for the last time at the end of last week, chanting “Cap-tain Cro-zier! Cap-tain Cro-zier!” as he walked down the gangplank. But that didn’t stop Modly from repeatedly telling the crew members that Crozier’s actions amounted to “a betrayal” of both them and his chain of command. Crozier and more than 150 of his former shipmates are now suffering from COVID-19.

Thomas Modly, left, and Brett Crozier
Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, left, and U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh via AP)

Modly also took aim at the news media, telling the crew that “there is no, no situation where you go to the media” with concerns, because news media organizations in his view have partisan agendas and will use what sailors tell them “to embarrass the Navy … [and] to embarrass you.”

As might have been expected, Modly’s speech rocketed around the internet, first as an almost completely accurate transcript, and then as an actual recording.

The Navy’s initial response was to affect an air of surprise that the acting secretary’s speech to thousands of sailors had reached the news media, just as Crozier’s email to what Modly himself described as “20 to 30” people had. Nobody in the Navy’s public affairs office in the Pentagon would respond to questions about the speech on the record. “Those remarks were intended to be private, between the secretary and each member of the crew,” said a Navy official.

But Guy Snodgrass, a retired F-18 squadron commander who knows several officers on the Theodore Roosevelt, said Modly’s comments were viewed as “the definition of … ‘hypocritical’” by those on the ship.

“He told the sailors that he had to fire Capt. Crozier because of his indiscretion in sending up that memorandum and how that got to the media, but here he is, blasting this stuff out,” said Snodgrass, who added that he’d been told that “everyone on the ship is livid.”

It wasn’t just the text, but the manner of Modly’s delivery that upset sailors, according to Snodgrass, adding that according to Theodore Roosevelt sailors he’d heard, Modley marched onto the ship, “gave a 15-minute ‘tirade’ and immediately left the carrier.” The acting secretary chose to speak over the ship’s intercom system rather than to address sailors in person in the carrier’s vast hangar bay, a decision that Snodgrass said “most sailors believe” was motivated by a desire “to avoid public backlash from the crew.”

That backlash was nonetheless forthcoming, and from a much wider Navy audience, according to Snodgrass. “The unofficial Navy channels on social media lit up like a Christmas tree as reaction built, all of it negative,” he said. “The most pervasive question was, ‘How quickly will he be fired?’”

The speech drew swift condemnation from Capitol Hill. “TR sailors are on the frontlines of this pandemic and our nation’s defense in the Pacific,” tweeted Virginia Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a retired Navy commander who served on multiple aircraft carriers. “Acting @SECNAV remarks to the crew show that he is in no way fit to lead our Navy through this trying time. [Defense Secretary Mark Esper] should immediately fire him.”

Modly’s comments were “completely inappropriate and beneath the office of the secretary of the Navy,” said another Virginia Democrat, Sen. Tim Kaine, in a statement. “It’s deeply disappointing that he would deliver a speech on board a U.S. aircraft carrier suggesting Capt. Crozier might be ‘stupid’ and bashing the media for trying to report the truth. These dedicated sailors deserve better from their leadership.”

By mid-afternoon Eastern Time on Monday, Modly had issued his own statement. "I have not listened to a recording of my remarks since speaking to the crew so I cannot verify if the transcript is accurate,” it said. “The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for them. I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably, any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand. I ask, but don’t expect, that people read them in their entirety."

That last sentence prompted some sarcastic comments online. “Oh, they’re definitely being read in their entirety,” tweeted Defense News Pentagon correspondent Aaron Mehta.


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