WASHINGTON -- The Navy is launching a wider investigation of the coronavirus crisis aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, suggesting closer and deeper scrutiny of actions and decisions by senior admirals in the Pacific that led to the controversial firing of the ship's commander nearly a month ago.
The move announced Wednesday effectively delays a decision on whether to go ahead with a Navy recommendation that Capt. Brett E. Crozier be restored to command of the Roosevelt, which has been docked in Guam for weeks. Crozier was fired after pleading for urgent Navy action to protect his crew.
The expanded inquiry suggests the Navy is looking to hold someone accountable for the most severe virus outbreak to strike the U.S. military. It has infected nearly 1,000 sailors, killing one, and temporarily hobbled an aircraft carrier vital to the Navy’s mission of countering China’s power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The new investigation was announced by James E. McPherson, the acting Navy secretary, who said in a brief statement that an initial inquiry proved insufficient. “I have unanswered questions that the preliminary inquiry has identified and that can only be answered by a deeper review," said McPherson, a retired rear admiral who had served as the Navy's judge advocate general, its top lawyer.
That is a switch from last week when McPherson and the top Navy officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, presented to Defense Secretary Mark Esper their recommendation that Crozier be reinstated, based on the outcome of a preliminary inquiry by the Navy's No. 2 admiral.
There was no outward indication at the time of the Esper meeting that McPherson believed the initial inquiry was inadequate. But officials said that during the meeting, Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested a broader, more thorough investigation was needed.
The expanded investigation is expected to examine communication and leadership actions in the Navy chain of command in the Pacific, to include events before the initial virus outbreak in late March, officials said. This likely includes the decision to make a port visit to Da Nang, Vietnam, which has been cited as a possible source of the infection aboard the Roosevelt. That decision was made by Adm. Phil Davidson, who as commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is in charge of all forces in that region.
Crozier had sent a note to several commanders pleading for more urgent Navy action, including the removal of nearly all sailors from the ship to protect their health. The acting Navy secretary at the time, Thomas Modly, accused Cozier of bad judgment and directed that he be relieved of command April 2. Days later, amid an uproar of his handling of the matter, Modly resigned and was replaced by McPherson.
Crozier has been quarantined off the ship since his firing and is recovering after testing positive for the virus. The decision to extend the investigation for another month keeps him in limbo. For now, he is assigned to the commander of Naval Air Forces, Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller. If he is not reinstated to command before the Roosevelt leaves Guam, he would likely fly to San Diego to await the results of the investigation.
The extent of President Donald Trump's involvement in decisions about the Roosevelt is unclear. Asked at the White House whether Esper had asked his advice on how to proceed with Crozier's potential reinstatement, Trump said he did not want to comment. "I have my feelings on it,” he said.
Trump repeated his earlier assessment that the captain shouldn’t have written the memo that got him fired, but said he is a “very good man” who “had a bad day.”
In his statement, McPherson did not reveal what questions he thinks the initial inquiry left unanswered.
“I am directing Adm. Gilday to conduct a follow-on command investigation,” McPherson said. “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.”
The wider investigation is intended to last no longer than 30 days, according to one defense official who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity to provide details that go beyond McPherson's statement.
The Gilday review probably will address Crozier's concerns that his superiors were not acting fact enough to protect the crew from the spreading virus. Those leaders would include Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, commander of the carrier strike group, who was aboard the Roosevelt with Crozier; the 7th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. William R. Merz; and the Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. John C. Aquilino, as well as Davidson, head of Indo-Pacific Command.
Nearly 1,000 sailors from the Roosevelt have contracted the coronavirus; one has died. The outbreak is the most severe in the U.S. military, which is seeking to balance a need to protect troops while also maintaining U.S. defenses. In recent days a second ship, the USS Kidd, reported a coronavirus outbreak at sea. It pulled into port at San Diego on Tuesday with at least 64 sailors infected, reflecting more efficient action by the Navy to address the threat posed by the virus in close quarters.
After weeks in quarantine or isolation in Guam, hundreds of members of the Roosevelt crew are beginning to move back onto the ship in a transition that will take days. According to the Navy’s 7th Fleet, the more than 4,000 sailors who have tested negative will return to the ship in waves. The roughly 700 sailors who have been running the ship while in port will move ashore and into quarantine.
In the weeks since the ship arrived in Guam in late March, sailors have been cleaning areas and then closing them off.