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Acting Navy secretary says ousted captain leaked concerns to media, or was ‘too naive or too stupid to command a ship’

Capt. Brett Crozier, shown in Yokosuka, Japan, in  April 2018, was ousted last week.
Capt. Brett Crozier, shown in Yokosuka, Japan, in April 2018, was ousted last week. (Mass Communication Spec. 2rd Class Jordan Kirk-Johnson/U.S. Navy/Reuters)
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Acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly told sailors Monday that the ousted captain of an aircraft carrier afflicted by the coronavirus either was “too naive or too stupid to command a ship,” or that he leaked a letter raising concerns about the service’s handling of the crisis to the media, Navy officials acknowledged.

Modly’s remarks, which prompted calls for his resignation, came during a visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has been crippled in port in Guam as sailors are tested and quarantined following an outbreak of the virus.

Modly, the Navy’s top politically appointed official, relieved Navy Capt. Brett Crozier from command Thursday, saying that he had shown “poor judgment” by sending an unclassified letter that sounded an alarm about the speed at which the Navy was dealing with the issue.

Modly’s remarks Monday quickly leaked in the media and were first published by the Daily Caller. He told the crew that Crozier’s letter was a “betrayal” and that the situation has turned Crozier into a “martyr” commanding officer.

“I understand that you may be angry with me for the rest of your lives,” Modly said, according to a widely circulated transcript of the speech. “I guarantee that you won’t be alone. Being angry is not your duty. Your duty is to each other, to this ship, and to the nation that built it for you to protect them.”

Navy official’s speech deepens a political crisis as warship battles coronavirus

A Navy official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said there “is no official transcript” of Modly’s remarks to the crew. But the official did not dispute the comments as they have been reported.

Sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt gave Navy Capt. Brett Crozier a raucous farewell April 3, hours after he was dismissed over a coronavirus letter. (Video: Alexis Bias via Storyful)

“His remarks were intended to be private, between the Secretary and each member of the crew,” the official said in a statement.

Within hours, an audio recording of Modly’s remarks leaked to the military website Task & Purpose. Modly responded in a statement that he had not listened to a recording of his remarks, “so I cannot verify if the transcript is accurate.”

“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,” the statement said. “Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand. I ask, but don’t expect, that people read them in their entirety.”

In his remarks to sailors, Modly also took umbrage with media coverage of Crozier’s ouster, which included video clips posted to social media of crew members chanting the captain’s name in support as he walked the gangway to exit the Theodore Roosevelt.

“There is no, no situation where you go to the media,” Modly said. “Because the media has an agenda and the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit, and I’m sorry that’s where the country is right now, but it’s the truth and so they use it to divide us and use it to embarrass the Navy.”

The remarks prompted backlash from liberal commentators on social media and also some former Trump administration officials.

David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel who has grown critical of the administration since leaving a post at the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted Monday that initially he was “not in the camp” calling for Modly to resign because of Crozier’s dismissal but that he is now.

“These remarks to sailors are unbefitting a senior leader and will only increase divisiveness in the ranks,” he tweeted. “He has failed as a leader & should resign.”

Amber Smith, who left the administration after serving as a senior adviser to the previous defense secretary, Jim Mattis, tweeted Monday that it is “sad that there are people like this at the Pentagon leading sections of the military,” sharing a link to the transcript of Modly’s speech.

“This isn’t how a leader acts — this is how a teenage girl acts,” she tweeted. “At least now the world knows who SECNAVY Modly truly is — a selfish politician climbing the ladder.”

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, speaking in television interviews Sunday, said he supported Modly.

“With regard to the relief of Captain Crozier, I think acting Secretary Modly made a very tough decision, a decision that I support,” Esper said, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“It was based on his view that he had lost faith and confidence in the captain, based on his actions,” Esper said. “It was supported by Navy leadership.”

The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, asked Monday whether Esper still supports Modly, referred comment back to Esper’s remarks a day before.