The Carrier

One of the more interesting episodes in our current political whirlpool is that of the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s infection with the COVID-19 virus in late March, 2020.

My plan was to gather the facts here until I discovered that people had already done so, on a site called Defense One that I like so much I’ve subscribed to it. I’ve extracted the great majority of facts I talk about here from this site and sprinkled in a few from elsewhere. And then I worked in some of my own questions and comments.

February 26 – President Trump declares that the number of US cases of the coronovirus “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”

Later in the day, in what appears to be an effort to keep combat commanders from contradicting Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper directs them to inform him before they make decisions about protecting their troops from COVID-19 if doing so might “run afoul of President Trump’s messaging”. Ahhhh, so now we see what considerations are driving our military.

February 28 – Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly orders 7th Fleet ships to spend at least 14 days between port visits as a prophylactic measure against COVID-19. This means that he’s fully aware that the virus is spreading and presents a great danger. A danger to the sailors, of course, but more importantly to his career if he’s unable to keep a lid on news coverage.

March 5 – The USS Theodore Roosevelt, under the command of Captain Brett Crozier, arrives in Danang from Guam for a port visit. At the time there were no known active cases of COVID-19 in Vietnam.

March 8 – New cases of COVID-19 are reported in Vietnam, including two British tourists in Danang.

March 9 – The Theodore Roosevelt departs Danang.

March 22: The first TR sailor is diagnosed with COVID-19. The thirteen-day lapse suggests that his infection might not have come from Vietnam but rather from one of the many people who were flown on and off the carrier after it left Vietnam.

March 24: Two more TR sailors are diagnosed with COVID-19 and medevaced off the ship. Also on this day Secretary Modly says they had been removed from the ship as soon as possible after the positive diagnosis, and any sailors who had been in contact with them recently were being put in quarantine.

“This is an example of our ability to keep our ships deployed at sea underway even with active COVID-19 cases,” Modly said. Ahhh, let’s look underneath this line. Modly’s focus here is not letting the virus impact the naval exercise by delaying redeployment of the TR to sea.

At some point later in the day Modly says that despite the appearance of the virus on the TR and other ships, “our ships are sailing, our planes are flying, and training is still happening to safeguard our U.S. national interests and those of all our allies and partners around the world.” Yes, everything is running along smoothly and we’re keeping you safe as always. Note here that Modly is very clear that even though the TR is involved in a training exercise, a facade of normalcy must be maintained and no virus can be allowed to contradict our President.

March 25: Five more TR sailors are diagnosed with COVID-19 and medevaced off the ship.

March 26: TR begins testing entire crew for COVID-19.

March 27 – The TR returns to Guam.

March 28 – Eight more sailors are moved from the TR to the naval hospital in Guam.

March 29 – Captain Crozier has extended discussions with the two men next above him in the chain of command, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker and Admiral John Aquilino, but is unable to convince them to evacuate his crew, both of them refusing to do so on the grounds that it would jeopardize the mission. Note: In combat, the mission is paramount and takes precedence over everything else. You go into combat knowing that you will likely lose some of your men, but you do your best to minimize your losses while still accomplishing the mission. Crozier will point out later that this is not combat but rather a peacetime training mission. At some point in the evening, Crozier consults his chief medical officer, who tells him that if the ship is not evacuated, fifty sailors will likely die.

March 30 – Modly’s chief of staff talks with Crozier and tells him that if he feels that he is not getting the proper response from his chain of command, he has a direct line into Modly’s office. So here Crozier is being advised that he’s free to jump the chain of command all the way up to the Secretary of the Navy. Has this ever before in history happened? I sincerely doubt it.

Later, Crozier writes an eloquent letter arguing his case for evacuating the ship and quarantining the crew, pointing out that if this were wartime, they’d of course fight sick; but since it’s a peacetime exercise, there is no reason to let his sailors die unnecessarily. He attaches the letter to an email addressed to his three immediate superiors, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino, and Naval Air Forces commander Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller. He copies seven other captains.

Modly will later describe the email as being sent to “20-30 people”, which I see as evidence that he’s at this point already unhinged since the whole damn world can look at the email and see that there are only ten addressees. Not, of course, that persons at high levels making patently false claims is without precedent.

Someone leaks Crozier’s letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, which immediately prints it.

March 31 – By noon, Modly has learned of the publication of Crozier’s letter and has told CNN that the Navy is responding to the letter and working to evacuate the ship. However, later in the afternoon, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper tells CBS that he doesn’t think evacuation is necessary and that the situation should be studied.

April 1 – The evacuation of the ship begins.

In the middle of the day Modly calls Crozier and says (quoting Modly) “I said, ‘How are you feeling? Do you feel like you have enough ventilators? Clearly, if [50] people are going to die, that means you need enough ventilators.’ He said, ‘Oh, sir, I feel comfortable we have enough ventilators here.’ How many do you have? ‘Six.’ I said, ‘That’s going to be enough?’ That does not comport with a death statistic that says 50 people are going to die.”

Ahhh, let’s look at that. Modly has obviously learned of Crozier’s chief medical officer’s estimate that if nothing were done, probably 50 would die, so he asks what looks like a trick question. However, it just shows his mindset since if the evacuation goes as Crozier had begged for, then six ventilators would be plenty, especially since those needing one would be the first evacuated.

That afternoon, Modly holds a joint press conference with a pack of high naval officials including CNO Adm. Michael Gilday, who says, regarding punishing Crozier, “We’re not looking to shoot the messenger here.” To which Modly responds, “The fact that he wrote the letter up to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation. This is what we want our commanding officers to be able to do. [They] should not be inhibited from telling us and being transparent about the issues that they see. But they need to do it through their chains – their chains of command. And if they’re not getting the proper responses from their chains of command, then they need to maybe go outside of it.”

By evening, however, Modly has changed his mind and tells Secretary of Defense Esper that “the direction I was headed” was to relieve Crozier. “And he told me that he would support my decision, whatever that might be.”

April 2 – Crozier sends a second letter to describe the ongoing evacuation.

Around 4:30 p.m., Modly calls a short-notice Pentagon press conference to announce Crozier’s relief, charging him with, among other things, “undermining the chain of command”. Ummm, just the previous day Modly had been encouraging Crozier to ignore the chain of command and phone him directly.

Modly also tells reporters that he has lost confidence in the CO’s judgment, in part because his memo “creates the perception that the Navy’s not on the job, the government’s not on the job.” So if Crozier gives the impression that the government is not on the job, upon whom does that negatively reflect?

My question here is why was it necessary for the Secretary of the Navy to intervene on short notice and relieve the captain himself? After all, captains are normally relieved through the chain of command and then only after an investigation. In recent years, Captains involved in collisions that cost the lives of double-digit numbers of sailors were not relieved until after weeks-long investigations. What makes this case different? Surely not a different commander-in-chief.

About an hour after Modly’s press conference, Captain Crozier appears on the hangar deck to walk to the aluminum gangplank off the ship. He is flanked by rows of sailors silently saluting and falling in behind him as he progresses. When he reaches the ramp, hundreds of sailors start chanting, “Cap-tain Cro-zier, Cap-tain Cro-zier” until he’s stepped into a waiting car. I cannot imagine this show of support not bringing tears to his eyes.

3 April – Before dawn Modly, continuing to break new ground, posts a 400 word message to the TR’s Facebook page justifying his relieving of Crozier. No Secretary of the Navy in history has lowered himself to making posts on a ship’s Facebook page.

In the early morning many videos are posted of the sailors cheering Crozier off the ship, and many retired naval officers have registered their support of Crozier. Modly gives an interview with Trump sycophant Hugh Hewitt, who quoted him as saying Crozier “knew full well at the time that everything he had been asking for was flowing into theater as fast as possible.” Ummmm, wait a minute. That’s not even close to true, Crozier’s letter was sparked by his superior’s dragging their feet and refusing to go along with an evacuation.

4 April – A storm blows up of Democratic politicians and sympathizers clamoring to support Crozier. One, Max Boot, notes in the Washington Post that Crozier is the only person to be punished for an act involving the pandemic. Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Tweed, writes a letter saying that his grandfather had written a memo similar to Crozier’s breaking the chain of command in order to get help for his Rough Riders in Cuba.

In the evening, Trump endorses Modly’s relief of Captain Crozier.

Meanwhile, Modly, in a growing rage over the public affront to him presented by the sailors cheering Crozier off the ship, decides that he must immediately fly to Guam, address the sailors onboard the TR, and point out the error of their ways. Since he’s a very important and busy man, he needs to get there ASAP, address the troops, and return immediately to Washington. Alas, this is not easy to do since the Gulfstream flight crew is required have 24 hours rest before flying back. But where there’s a will, there’s a quick flight back. See, Captain Sardiello, the new captain of the TR had already been scheduled to fly to Guam, so instead of Modly just getting on the same plane, he sets up two flights, one to carry himself there, the other to carry Captain Sardiello plus an extra crew so that the extra crew, having slept all the way over as passengers, could then turn around and fly Modly back to Andrews so he wouldn’t have to wait 24 hours to return home. This means the taxpayers were out $389,000 so that Modly could make a visit to the TR in order to harangue the sailors. I have no head for numbers, and the cost of Modly’s flight is often set at $243,000, but that was before it was revealed that two flights were involved. Sharper pencils than mine need to resolve this, but in any case at very least the taxpayers were out a great deal of money to fund Modly’s thirty-minute visit to Guam. Also in any case, Modly is violating rules forbidding doublecrewing flights, but for reasons we might be able to figure out, his doing so is not blocked, nor is he reprimanded for it. How strange, when the previous Secretary of the Navy, following the rules, once took a commercial flight back to the states when he needed to get back without waiting 24 hours.

5 April – In the afternoon, Paul Ignatius writes, “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.”

And then, at about 11:00 PM, Modly walks onto the TR and delivers a fifteen-minute harangue to the sailors, alternating between criticizing Crozier and criticizing the sailors for supporting him. Needless to say, many of the sailors recorded the speech. Modly leaves the ship within thirty minutes and boards his plane back to Washington.

6 April – By 9:00 AM while Modly is still high over the Pacific, the Daily Caller posts a story about Modly’s speech, including a rough transcript, and by noon both an audio recording and a full transcript are online.

Furor ensues, and throughout the morning assorted Democrats and Independents condemn Modly’s speech. Around noon, the New York Times publishes Modly’s response to Tweed Roosevelt’s letter, saying Roosevelt has it all wrong. Modly’s letter is also posted to the Navy’s official site but removed hours later. Hmmmm. Who had it removed?

About 1:15 Modly issues a statement saying that he “stands by every word” of his speech.

In the early afternoon, the TR public affairs officer, unaware that the audio and transcript of the speech are already online, tells crew leaders to pass the word that sailors need “the person’s permission to record them and post it online. If they posted SECNAV’s 1MC [PA system] remarks on social media, they need to take it down immediately.” I just love coverups that fail this way.

At a press conference about 6:00 PM, Trump begins to backpedal on Crozier, saying, “…his career prior to that was very good, so I’m going to get involved and see exactly what’s going on there, because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

A bit later, Esper tells Modly to apologize, which Modly does about 9:00 PM in the least apologetic fashion imaginable.

7 April – Modly gets the day off to a good start by tendering his resignation, but this is kept secret until mid-afternoon.

About 4:00 PM, Esper announces Modly’s resignation and says that any action taken against Crozier will wait until a separate investigation is complete.

About 6:00 PM, when asked about Modly’s resignation, Trump says, “I had no role in it. I don’t know him. I’ve heard he was a very good man.”

By Tuesday, April 14th, 82% of TR’s crew have been moved to isolation ashore.

As of the 24th, the top officers in the Navy want to restore Crozier to his command, but some in the Department of Defense are demanding more investigation. What I’m not seeing now is any talk about the importance of the mission overriding concerns for the health of the sailors, talk that was rampant as a reason for relieving Crozier way back at the first of the month and which I can only speculate was sparked by a feeling in the highest naval officers that everything has to look good for Trump. But wait, wouldn’t the sailors dying like flies on the TR have looked even worse than an evacuation? Many unanswered questions here.

Footnote: One thing that will help explain Modly’s bizarre behavior is that Trump appointed him Acting Secretary of the Navy after sacking the previous Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, over his fighting against Trump’s reversal and continual interference with the naval courtmartial for war crimes of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher. Modly knew very well that he needed to keep Trump happy in order to keep his job. Alas, his best was not good enough.

Late addition: In July the site Defense One published an analysis of Crozier’s actions that made a good case supporting Crozier’s being relieved of his command.

Meanwhile, some color at the end of the tunnel.

Oh, and as usual, I welcome comments, most especially those that correct something I’ve got wrong. Scroll down to submit one.

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  1. David
    Posted 29 April 2020 at 04:24 | Permalink

    Stellar research on this, Matte, an all over excellent account.

    • Posted 29 April 2020 at 07:15 | Permalink

      You’re too kind, but I’m glad you liked it. It was definitely a labor of love because I haven’t tried to think that clearly in ages. BTW, I included a number of my own speculations and questions that I thought were germane, but all the facts I mentioned could have been footnoted. Some of them might be wrong because my source was in error, which is a very real possibility since I noticed several discrepancies between sources where one of the sources had clearly got it wrong. A simple case in point is that quite a few sources were deceived by Modly’s statement that Crozier’s email had been sent to 20-30 people and then used that grossly inflated number themselves.

      Then again, I could well have made errors myself, and I call on my readers to contact me with corrections by leaving a comment.

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