Navy's top admiral recommends reinstating captain fired over COVID-19 warning

Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved of command three weeks ago.

April 24, 2020, 10:16 PM

The Navy's top admiral has recommended that Capt. Brett Crozier be reinstated as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt weeks after he was fired by the Navy's former acting secretary, a U.S. official said Friday.

But no final decision on a possible reinstatement was made Friday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, after a meeting with the Navy's top leadership to discuss the recommendation, according to another U.S. official. A Pentagon spokesman said in a statement that Esper would decide the next steps regarding the handling of the outbreak aboard the carrier after he receives a written copy of the investigation into the circumstances that in the end led to Crozier's firing by then-acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly.

Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, and James McPherson, the new acting secretary of the Navy, met with Esper to present the results of the Navy's review ordered by Esper.

A U.S. official told ABC News Gilday had recommended to Esper that Crozier should be reinstated to the command he lost a few weeks ago after writing a letter to Navy leadership requesting more help in stemming the spread of coronavirus aboard his ship. But at Friday's meeting, according to another U.S. official, Esper, Gilday and McPherson did not make a final decision.

In a statement late Friday, the Navy said Gilday presented recommendation to McPherson, who in turn is in "continuing discussions" with Esper and that "no final decisions have been made."

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael M. Gilday speaks at a briefing about the Navy's response to COVID-19, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., April 1, 2020.
Lisa Ferdinando/Department of Defense

The Pentagon's top spokesman said Esper had received "a verbal update" from Gilday and McPherson on the Navy's preliminary inquiry and was awaiting a written copy of the report before pursuing next steps.

"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," said Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense. "He remains focused on and committed to restoring the full health of the crew and getting the ship at sea again soon."

A senior Defense official told ABC News the Navy's inquiry is focused on more than just Crozier -- it's examining the complex timeline of communications and response efforts by Navy officers across different commands to help address the coronavirus outbreak on the carrier as it approached a scheduled port of call in Guam. Modly had criticized Crozier for leaving the impression that the Navy was not already speeding up efforts to find adequate quarantine facilities on the island for the nearly 5,000 sailors on the carrier.

"Given the importance of the topic and the complex nature, the Secretary is going to read the full written report," said the senior defense official. The official stressed that while Crozier's situation has garnered the most attention, the review "is in fact about far more than one person."

"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," said the official. "To ensure that, he wants to actually read the report.”

Should Crozier be reinstated, Navy officials said, it's believed it would be the first time a ship's commander relieved because of a loss of confidence saw that decision reversed.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, urged Esper to agree to the Navy recommendation and reinstate Crozier immediately.

"The Secretary of Defense needs to reinstate Captain Brett Crozier as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt," Smith said in a statement. "While Captain Crozier's actions at the outset of the health crisis aboard the TR were drastic and imperfect, it is clear he only took such steps to protect his crew."

Crozier was relieved of command three weeks ago by Modly, who said the ship's captain had shown "poor judgment" in writing a letter asking for more Navy assistance to stem an outbreak of the novel coronavirus on his ship.

Modly said the letter, later published in a newspaper, created unnecessary worries for the families of sailors aboard the ship and made it sound as if the Navy wasn't already making preparations to find quarantine facilities for the crew on Guam.

Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), gives remarks during an all-hands call on the flight deck, Dec. 15, 2019.
Seaman Alexander Williams/U.S. Navy, FILE

Modly resigned a day after he made controversial remarks in Guam to the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt about their fired captain, for being "either too naïve or too stupid" to not think his letter would have become public.

Esper named Under Secretary of the Army James McPherson as Modly's temporary replacement.

Last week, the chief of naval operations received the results of the investigation into Crozier's actions, led by Adm. Robert Burke, the vice chief of naval operations. Two weeks ago, Gilday had said that "all options are on the table" as he reviewed the results.

Commanding Officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, Captain Brett E. Crozier, in an official photo from the U.S. Navy.
U.S. Navy

In an interview with NBC's "Today" program last week, Esper declined to comment on the possibility that Crozier could be reinstated because he's in the chain of command, but he did say he would keep "an open mind" about the matter.

"We've got to take this one step at a time," said Esper. "Let the investigation within the Navy conclude itself, if you will, as it -- as they brief it up. And we'll take things as I can, and we'll make very reasoned opinions and judgments as this progresses."

According to the Navy's latest figures, 856 Roosevelt crew members have tested positive for COVID-19, nearly 18% of the 4,865 sailors aboard. One sailor died last week from related complications, and four others remained hospitalized. Earlier in the week, additional sailors were receiving treatment, including one in intensive care.

The Navy identified the deceased sailor as 41-year-old Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., an aviation ordnanceman from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) depart the ship to move to off-ship berthing, April 10, 2020.
U.S. Navy

Crozier also tested positive for the virus and remains in self-isolation on Guam after experiencing mild symptoms. A friend of his told ABC News he was expected out of isolation this weekend.

In Crozier's letter, published by the San Francisco Chronicle, he requested that 10% of the crew remain aboard the carrier to carry out essential services and that the majority should be placed in quarantine on Guam, where the ship remains in port.

As it turns out, more than 85% of the ship's crew has been taken off the ship and placed in quarantine, approaching the number Crozier initially requested.

PHOTO: U.S. Navy personnel coordinate transportation of Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt who have tested negative for COVID-19, April 10, 2020.
U.S. Navy personnel coordinate transportation of Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) who have tested negative for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic from Naval Base Guam to government of Guam and military- approved commercial lodging, April 10, 2020.
U.S. Navy

How the virus got aboard the carrier remains open for debate. While much attention has focused on the carrier's port visit in early March to Da Nang, Vietnam, Navy officials have noted that the first cases of the coronavirus aboard the ship were among the ship's aviation wing. That indicates the virus may have come aboard from crews that routinely fly supply flights to the carrier.

Furthermore, a Navy official said the first cases did not come from among the 30 sailors who were quarantined for two weeks aboard the carrier after it became known that two tourists who stayed at their hotel in Da Nang had contracted COVID-19.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also pointed out last week that there have been no signs of an outbreak among the crew of the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, which also participated in the port visit.

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