Let’s begin with Capt. Brett Crozier, the (now former) commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Last week Crozier wrote a letter to his superiors urging them to allow more of the 4,800 sailors on his aircraft carrier to be removed for coronavirus testing; someone passed the letter to reporters and it appeared in public. In response, Crozier was fired by acting secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly. When Crozier left the ship, the sailors gathered to give him an emotional farewell.
The Post’s David Ignatius interviewed Modly over the weekend, and what becomes clear is that while Modly wasn’t explicitly ordered by President Trump to fire Crozier, he was doing exactly what he knew Trump wanted. In the same way, when a mob boss says, “Rocco is becoming a problem,” his underlings know what to do without the boss saying, “I am instructing you to rub out Rocco.”
Here’s part of Ignatius’s account:
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.
But on Monday, Modly spoke to the sailors on the carrier and blasted their former captain, saying that Crozier’s letter was “a betrayal of trust” and asserting that if Crozier didn’t think it would become public, he was “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.”
The remarks drew a shocked response. One anonymous defense official told CNN that the acting secretary “should be fired.” But given that Modly sounded a lot like Trump, that seems unlikely.
This is only the latest illustration of one of the guiding principles of the Trump administration: You can be incompetent and you can be corrupt, but the one thing you cannot do if you want to keep your job is to make Trump look bad. And when the president spent two months saying the virus was nothing to worry about and even now says his response has been impeccable, pleading for faster and more decisive action to save the lives of infected sailors makes it look like things are not under control.
So Crozier had to be punished. And now everyone else in the military knows to keep their mouths shut.
Speaking of shut mouths, there was another notable firing in the last few days: Trump has ousted Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general.
Atkinson has not been accused of mismanagement, incompetence or any other kind of poor performance. He did, however, do exactly what he was supposed to do when he got a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump had urged the president of Ukraine to assist his reelection campaign: He assessed the complaint, found it credible and urgent, and passed it on to the director of national intelligence.
Trump apparently thought that what Atkinson should have done was to cover it up. “I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible,” Trump said on Saturday. “He took this terrible, inaccurate whistleblower report and he brought it to Congress.”
In fact, whether you think it was grounds for impeachment or not, virtually everything in the whistleblower’s account proved to be true.
As Atkinson said in a statement: “It is hard not to think that the president’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial inspector general and from my commitment to continue to do so.”
Atkinson and Crozier are only the latest in a long line of people who no doubt believed their positions had little to do directly with the president; even if their nominal boss was a vindictive man-child, they could just do their jobs and serve the country. But once events bring you to the forefront of public attention, you have two choices: Make serving Trump’s personal interests your highest goal, or risk getting fired.
We learned in late February that the president had embarked on a purge, tasking close aides with searching for officials with insufficient loyalty so they could be sacked. One might have thought that the coronavirus crisis would have led him to put that on hold for a while, given the daily death toll.
Instead, just the opposite has happened: Trump is more worried about his public image than ever and more eager to fire those who forget that their real job is making him look good.