Modly offered a lengthy account of his actions in the dismissal Thursday of Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The nuclear-power aircraft carrier with a crew of about 4,800 had been stricken by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. On March 30, Crozier sent an emotional email pleading for help, which leaked the next day. Two days after that, Modly fired him — generating criticism from former senior military officials, who expressed deep concern about the impact of the precipitous act on morale and on commanders’ willingness to speak out with unwelcome news.
The Roosevelt incident has the ingredients of a morality play at sea: A captain desperate to protect his sailors, who takes actions that his superiors view as a sign of faltering resolve and judgment. Navy leaders worry about protecting the ship, but also about shielding the Navy from an irascible, impulsive commander in chief.
Recall classic tales about the moral dilemmas of men and women in uniform: “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “A Few Good Men.” The tale of the Roosevelt, crippled by covid-19, with a captain beloved by his sailors but mistrusted by the brass back at the Pentagon, has elements of all of them.
Modly narrated to me the events of last week to explain his growing concern that Crozier had “lost situational awareness” and that the captain wasn’t communicating clearly with the chain of command or the acting Navy secretary himself. He also described the shadow overhanging the Navy after Trump’s controversial intervention last fall in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher.
Modly explained that his predecessor, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, “lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president” in the Gallagher case. “I didn’t want that to happen again.” The acting secretary reiterated the point later in the conversation: “I put myself in the president’s shoes. I considered how the president felt like he needed to get involved in Navy decisions [in the Gallagher case and the Spencer firing]. I didn’t want that to happen again.”
Modly said he “had no discussions with anyone at the White House prior to making the decision” to relieve Crozier. Referring to his boss, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, he said: “That is Secretary Esper’s job, not mine.” Navy sources had said Modly told a colleague that Trump “wants him [Crozier] fired,” and though Modly denied getting any direct message to that effect, he clearly understood that Trump was unhappy with the uproar surrounding the Roosevelt.
Trump made clear his distaste for Crozier and his plea for help in comments to reporters Saturday: “I thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered. And he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter.”
Modly’s personal involvement began March 29, four days after the coronavirus-stricken Roosevelt had arrived in Guam for a scheduled visit. Covid-19 was spreading rapidly in the crowded quarters, and Modly wanted to offer help. He asked his chief of staff, Bob Love, to contact Crozier directly, and the two exchanged emails that Sunday night.
Modly said such direct contact from the secretary’s office to a captain at sea was “not something I would normally do, but this wasn’t a normal situation.” When Love asked Crozier what he needed, he detected “no alarm bells, no hair on fire,” Modly said. Asked what he needed, Crozier answered “just speed” and to “get people off the ship as fast as we could.” Love gave Crozier the acting secretary’s personal cellphone and told him to call if he needed more, Modly said.
By March 30, the evacuation of the ship was still proceeding slowly, and Crozier wrote his now-famous four-page plea for help. The language was emphatic and emotional: “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” Crozier wrote. “Decisive action is required. … We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”
The missive wasn’t addressed to anyone. Modly said it was attached to an email headed “Dear Fellow Naval Aviators,” with wide distribution. Along with it was another attachment, describing the spread of covid-19 aboard a cruise ship. Modly and Love weren’t on the distribution list for the email.
Modly said he learned about the memo on Tuesday, the day after it was written, when he arrived on a trip to Los Angeles and was told a leaked copy had been published that day in the San Francisco Chronicle. He regarded dissemination of the message as “bizarre behavior for a commanding officer,” especially since Crozier hadn’t contacted Modly directly, and began asking colleagues about Crozier, a widely respected officer.
“I was flabbergasted,” Modly said. “My only conclusion was, ‘he’s panicking.’ It was so out of character.” Modly spoke with Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, and other top officers on Tuesday, as the situation aboard the Roosevelt became a national story. “I wanted the senior people in the chain of command to reach out to the captain directly,” Modly said.
On Wednesday, Modly called Crozier personally and asked, “What’s the story?” — meaning, why had he sent the email? According to Modly, Crozier answered: “Sir, we were getting a lot more cases. I felt it was time to send out a signal flare.” (Navy ships fire such a flare when the captain fears they’re in danger of sinking, Modly explained.)
By that time, more sailors were being transferred off the Roosevelt to safer makeshift quarters in Guam, and the anxiety onboard had eased. “I got no indication from Captain Crozier when I spoke with him personally on Wednesday that he wasn’t getting what he needed. None, in fact, the opposite.” Modly said he also received some direct communications from sailors who said the situation onboard wasn’t as dire as Crozier’s now-leaked memo had said.
By Wednesday, Modly said, “it was obvious to me that I couldn’t trust [Crozier’s] judgment." Gilday, with support from Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to conduct an investigation of the incident. But Modly said he told the chief of naval operations: “I didn’t want to do an investigation while [Crozier] had a cloud over his head. I wanted to take the heat myself.”
Modly said he was concerned that Crozier had allowed the inflammatory message to become public by sending it to so many people. “Either you’re losing it, or you’re extremely naive, or you’re dishonorable. … If he did this intentionally, he’s not honorable.”
The climax came Thursday morning. At 7 a.m., Modly called Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, the commander of the Roosevelt’s multi-ship strike group and Crozier’s immediate superior. Modly said he asked Baker if he had known that Crozier would be sending the impassioned memo, and the strike group commander answered: “No. It arrived in my email inbox.” There had been no prior discussion or consultation about the message, Baker said.
Baker told Modly that he pressed Crozier why he hadn’t cleared the sensitive message or wide distribution group in advance. According to Modly, Crozier answered that “he worried Baker would not let him send it to that broad a group.” Baker affirmed to Modly: “He was right. I wouldn’t.”
After that conversation with Baker, whose cabin aboard the Roosevelt was near Crozier’s, the acting secretary said he decided that Crozier had to be relieved. He informed Esper, Milley and Gilday later Thursday morning, and although Gilday favored more investigation before taking such drastic action, Modly said that “I have lost confidence” in the captain. Esper, with Milley’s support, backed the decision, Modly told me, and Gilday stood by the acting secretary.
Modly sent me an email later Sunday morning, summarizing why he reached the decision: “I had serious doubts about how this CO might act if, for example, the ship came under attack by hypersonic missiles, or by cyber forces that crippled his communications, or by any other unpredictable event. It’s essential to love your crew, but it’s not sufficient.”