Civilian control of the military is part of the American bedrock. Acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly used that prerogative unwisely Thursday when he short-circuited a preliminary military investigation and fired an aircraft carrier captain who had pleaded for help against the coronavirus pandemic sweeping his crew.

The sudden firing of Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, has created another unsettling moment for a country traumatized by the worsening pandemic — and for a Navy already rocked by President Trump’s remarkable intervention last year in disciplinary cases involving the elite Navy SEALs. Crozier’s crew cheered him as a hero as he walked alone down the gangway, leaving what will almost surely be his last command. Former vice president Joe Biden tweeted his support for Crozier.

It isn’t clear what role Trump may have played in Crozier’s ouster. Modly told one colleague Wednesday, the day before he announced the move: “Breaking news: Trump wants him fired.” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper apparently obtained White House approval for a preliminary investigation into Crozier’s conduct, a probe that Modly preempted with the firing. Esper appears to have left the final decision about how to handle the matter to Modly, who last month was passed over as Trump’s permanent choice for the job.

In taking the extraordinary step of relieving Crozier in the midst of the outbreak on board his ship, Modly argued that the commander had become “overwhelmed” by the crisis and violated the chain of command by writing an emotional four-page plea for help on March 30. That unclassified document leaked into print the next day. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” he wrote in the unclassified memo. Some Pentagon officials believed Crozier’s inflammatory language added to panic aboard the ship and among crew members’ families.

A half-dozen former top Navy officials said in interviews Saturday that Modly’s intervention was a mistake that they feared would have a chilling effect on commanders and encourage them to suppress bad news that might upset political leaders.

“I think the firing was a really bad decision, because it undermines the authority of the military commanders who are trying to take care of their troops, and significantly negatively impacts the willingness of commanders to speak truth to power,” said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview Saturday.

The crisis aboard the Roosevelt has been building for weeks, as the virus spread among the ship’s roughly 4,800 officers and sailors. Coronavirus test kits were rushed to the ship, and it sought refuge in Guam. But moving infected sailors off the ship was complicated, for logistical, political and readiness reasons. As of Friday, Modly said about 140 members of the Roosevelt’s crew had tested positive for covid-19.

One of the surprising aspects of the Roosevelt drama is how closely Modly became involved in matters that would normally be handled by uniformed officers. Appointed undersecretary with White House support in 2017, Modly has been an aggressive communicator since becoming acting secretary in November, following the firing of Richard Spencer, who had clashed with Trump over the treatment of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher. Modly has sent out 18 communiques, which he calls “Vectors,” to Navy personnel that mix command advice with folksy references to sports heroes includer pitcher Bob Feller and quarterback Tom Brady.

Modly told colleagues that before Crozier’s desperate memo surfaced, he had asked his chief of staff to call the Roosevelt’s captain and give him Modly’s personal cellphone number. Modly also pressed Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, on whether he had spoken to Crozier. Gilday apparently preferred to leave such communications to the normal chain of command.

By Wednesday, Modly told a colleague he was thinking of relieving Crozier and that Trump “wants him fired.” He was advised by several current and former colleagues, reportedly including Gilday, that such a dismissal would be unwise, and that the matter was best left to the military.

The situation became more political Wednesday afternoon, when Esper, Gilday and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House to join Trump in announcing an oddly timed new anti-drug offensive. The memo about the dire situation aboard the Roosevelt had already surfaced, and Gilday was asked about it in Trump’s presence.

Gilday answered that the Navy had made “great progress” and had moved more than 1,000 crew members off the ship in Guam — a number that he said would increase to 2,700 by Friday. As Gilday was explaining these protective measures, Trump interjected: “And not too many people are going to be getting off at various ports anymore. Right?” The briefing moved on.

Gilday told colleagues Wednesday night that Trump had allowed a preliminary Navy investigation into what had gone wrong aboard the Roosevelt and how Crozier’s letter had surfaced. One detail that especially troubled Modly was that Crozier allegedly hadn’t shared the memo with Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, the commander of the multi-ship Roosevelt strike group and Crozier’s immediate superior.

The matter came to a head Thursday. Esper, Milley and Gilday are said to have favored continuing the investigation. But Modly said he wanted to relieve Crozier immediately, and Esper said, “I’ll do what you want.” Gilday argued against the firing but was overruled by the civilians. Baker, the strike group commander, announced the firing later that day.

One retired four-star officer said he was worried about “undue command influence” by Modly. The acting secretary had the authority to sack Crozier but in doing so undermined the uniformed officers who normally oversee such personnel decisions. “This is much bigger than the CO of the Theodore Roosevelt,” he said. “We’ve been working for years to make our commanding officers feel free to speak out about problems.” That openness might now be quashed.

Crozier “was running up an SOS,” said Sean O’Keefe, who served as Navy secretary for George H.W. Bush. “It’s a judgment call, but you have to support the action of a deployed commander.”

Richard Danzig, who served as Navy secretary during the Clinton administration, told me: “If Capt. Crozier carelessly or intentionally jumped abruptly outside of military channels, then the Navy had good cause for removing him. But I doubt it was good judgment to rush to do it at this time.”

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