The U.S. Navy’s top civilian excoriated the fired commander of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt to its crew on Monday as the sailors huddled on the island of Guam amid a coronavirus outbreak among their ranks, according to a transcript that was leaked online Monday. The New York Times has obtained an audio recording that supports the transcript’s authenticity.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly addressed the crew of the aircraft carrier on Monday afternoon via the ship’s internal loudspeaker system. In a profane and defensive address that one crew member described in an interview as “whiny, upset, irritated, condescending,” Modly took repeated shots at the integrity of Capt. Brett E. Crozier, who was removed from command last week, and eventually injected partisan political tones into the address by attacking former Vice President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly criticized Crozier’s removal.
Modly’s visit to the aircraft carrier, which is currently pierside in the U.S. territory of Guam, followed the firing on Thursday of Crozier after an email he wrote seeking further help for his stricken crew was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle.
Modly said Crozier was “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer” if he thought that letter wasn’t going to leak. “The alternative is that he did this on purpose,” Modly added.
The acting secretary went on to defend himself against comments made by Biden, who said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that the Navy’s treatment of Crozier “close to criminal.”
“I assure you it was not,” Modly said. “Because I understand the facts, and those facts show that what your captain did was very, very wrong in a moment when we expected him to be the calming force on a turbulent sea.”
Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s head spokesman, said he had seen the transcript but could not verify its authenticity. “I’ve asked his personal staff about it on travel,” Brown said. “I can say the secretary traveled to Guam and he did address the crew” of the Theodore Roosevelt.
The leaked transcript and audio is another self-inflicted public relations failure for the Navy in a week of upheaval. Three sailors aboard the Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for Covid-19 on March 24, and Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper said on Sunday that 155 sailors had now tested positive.
Modly’s comments drew sharp criticism from Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
“Secretary Modly’s comments were completely inappropriate and beneath the office of the Secretary of the Navy,” Kaine said in a statement released by his office. “It’s deeply disappointing that he would deliver a speech on board a U.S. aircraft carrier suggesting that Captain Crozier might be ‘stupid’ and bashing the media for trying to report the truth. These dedicated sailors deserve better from their leadership.”
If Modly’s intent was to reassure the aircraft carrier’s crew that they would be taken care of as they attempted to limit the spread of Covid-19 aboard the ship, his address offered little in the way of concrete measures he intended to see through. Sailors on board the carrier told The Times that Modly didn’t tour the ship, and went right to the intercom for the address. The crew had submitted questions the night before, and several were submitted to Modly, who told the crew he would answer them when he got back to Washington.
At one point, the acting secretary slammed China and its role in the coronavirus pandemic while taking issue with Crozier’s assertion in the leaked letter that America was not at war. “The only reason we are dealing with this right now is because a big authoritarian regime called China was not forthcoming about what was happening with this virus and they put the world at risk to protect themselves and to protect their reputations,” he said.
Modly also decried Crozier’s “betrayal” and said his tale of being a “martyr” commanding officer had let everyone down across the chain of command. Crozier has tested positive for coronavirus, The Times first reported Sunday.
Given the number of people Crozier included on his email, he should have known it would leak, Modly said. “There is never a situation where you should consider the media part of your chain of command,” he warned. “You can jump the chain of command if you want and take the consequences. You can disobey the chain of command and take the consequences, but there is no situation where you go to the media.”
Such an action, Modly implied, could threaten the dissolution of the United States.
He ended his comments with a traditional Naval Academy cheer: “Go Navy.”
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Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.