Navy Secretary apologizes after calling USS Roosevelt's fired captain 'stupid'

WASHINGTON – The acting Navy secretary disparaged the former captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, calling him "too naive or too stupid" to command the aircraft carrier stricken with COVID-19, before issuing a remarkable apology taking back the insults.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who last week fired Capt. Brett Crozier for sending a letter to Navy officials urgently seeking help before one of his sailors died from the coronavirus, made the remarks about Crozier April 5 to members of the Roosevelt's crew. A Defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed Monday that a transcript of Modly's remarks was accurate.

In a stunning reversal, Modly apologized to Crozier, his family and the Navy in a statement late Monday night.

"Let me be clear, I do not think Capt. Brett Crozier is naive or stupid," Modly said, according to the statement released by the Navy. "I think, and always believed him to be the opposite."

It's unclear what prompted Modly's sudden change of heart. However, hours earlier President Donald Trump waded into the controversy, saying at a White House briefing that he would "look into" Crozier's case. In addition, powerful lawmakers called for Modly to be fired. And the Navy, shortly after Trump spoke, said it had extended the deadline for its investigation into Crozier's letter.

Trump called the letter a "mistake" that had worried families and showed "weakness." But he said Crozier has had a "very good" career.

"I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day," he said.

Relieving an officer of command typically ends the officer's career. After getting fired, they often take administrative jobs that lead to retirement. Trump said he was good at settling such issues and "can figure it out very fast."

After Trump spoke, the Navy announced that Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, had extended the deadline for its investigation into Crozier's actions.

“This extension will allow additional time to gather facts and refine the inquiry’s recommendations," Cdr. Nate Christensen, Gilday's spokesman, said in a statement. "The inquiry remains in progress and is expected to be completed soon. It will take additional time for the inquiry’s recommendations to be reviewed and endorsed by Adm. Gilday.”

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are calling for wider testing aboard ships. Several other ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, have had sailors test positive for the disease, according to Defense and Capitol Hill sources not authorized to speak publicly.

Monday began with news that Modly had spoken to the crew of the Roosevelt on Sunday, calling out Crozier.

Modly also berated the media, telling sailors that all journalists are biased and sought to embarrass them. The San Francisco Chronicle first reported Crozier's letter, which leaked after he had sent it to several Navy officials. Modly fired Crozier, he told reporters last week, because Crozier had panicked and he had lost confidence in him.

Modly also asserted in his speech to the crew that Crozier might have violated military law by intentionally leaking sensitive military information, which would subject him to possible court-martial.

Modly, in his first statement on his speech, acknowledged addressing the crew and using vulgarity. He took responsibility for his speech but said he could not recall the details.

Fact check: What's true and what's false about coronavirus?

"I have not listened to a recording of my remarks since speaking to the crew so I cannot verify if the transcript is accurate," Modly 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."

Modly's speech immediately drew fire from Capitol Hill. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith called for Modly to be fired.

“Acting Secretary Modly’s decision to address the sailors on the Roosevelt and personally attack Capt. Crozier shows a tone-deaf approach more focused on personal ego than one of the calm, steady leadership we so desperately need in this crisis," said Smith, D-Wash. "I no longer have confidence in Acting Secretary Modly’s leadership of the Navy and believe he should be removed from his position.”

The last Navy Secretary, Richard Spencer, was fired for his handling of another controversial case. That one involved Trump’s intervention in the case of Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallager, the Navy SEAL accused of war crimes. He was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with a corpse.

More than 150 sailors among the 4,800-member crew of the Roosevelt have tested positive for COVID-19. Crozier is one of them, according to The New York Times. The Navy has tested 61% of the crew and evacuated nearly 2,000 of them, placing them in quarantine in Guam, where the ship is docked.

The Roosevelt is the only coronavirus-stricken ship deployed – Guam is not its home port. The other ships have not left their home ports. The affected sailors from the other ships have been isolated.

However, testing for COVID-19 has been limited to larger ships, and the Navy does not know how many smaller vessels at sea might be affected, said Sen. Richard Bluementhal, D-Conn. and also a member of the Armed Services Committee. The Defense official agreed that testing is limited but said deployed ships have had limited or no contact with the outside world and are considered low risk.

Also Monday, Rep. Jackie Speier, who chairs the Armed Services Committee panel on personnel, pressed Defense Secretary Mark Esper for more protective equipment for troops and wider testing.

"Protecting them while performing their mission, as well as having the best test equipment available deployed to as many locations and ships as possible, is critical to ensure our service members are tested quickly and appropriate action is taken," Speier wrote to Esper. "I believe the Navy’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt was woefully inadequate in order to prevent further spread of the virus, putting sailors’ lives at risk."

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Contributing: John Fritze and Michael Collins

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Navy calls fired Crozier stupid; more ships test positive