Defense

Top Pentagon leaders split on next steps for fired captain who warned of coronavirus

The unprecedented decision to reinstate Crozier would be a rebuke to former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly.

Mark Milley

The nation's top military officer wants a broader investigation into the events leading up to the firing of an aircraft carrier captain, after top Navy leaders recommended Capt. Brett Crozier be reinstated as commander of the virus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt, two senior defense officials tell POLITICO.

The push by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to open a "full-blown investigation" into the incident would delay a final decision on reinstating Crozier after the Navy completed an "extensive" preliminary inquiry, according to one of the officials.

"Milley isn't faulting Crozier," the official said. "He wants more than just an inquiry ... that's the holdup."

Navy leaders verbally briefed Defense Secretary Mark Esper on the recommendations in the service's preliminary inquiry Friday afternoon, Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. Once Esper receives a written copy of the completed inquiry, he will "thoroughly review" the report and will meet again with Navy leaders to discuss "next steps," Hoffman said.

Pentagon leaders are now at an impasse about how to move forward. While Milley wants a broader inquiry, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and acting Navy Secretary James McPherson want to move ahead with reinstating Crozier, the two officials said. Esper may be the deciding vote between the two camps, the second official said.

A final decision is expected next week, the officials said. Spokespeople for Esper and Milley declined to comment. A Navy spokesperson also declined to comment on the discussions, referring to a Friday statement saying no final decisions have been made.

The delay comes as Esper faces mounting pressure to accept the Navy's recommendation and reinstate Crozier.

"While Captain Crozier’s actions at the outset of the health crisis aboard the TR were drastic and imperfect, it is clear he only took such steps to protect his crew," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "Captain Crozier should be reinstated to his command immediately."

The unprecedented decision to reinstate Crozier would be a rebuke to former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who fired the captain after his memo pleading for help battling an outbreak of the coronavirus on his ship leaked to the media. Modly later resigned over remarks he made to the ship's crew criticizing Crozier's actions.

The ship, which had been on deployment in the Pacific, pulled into Guam in late March as a coronavirus outbreak among the crew spread. As of Saturday, the Navy said there were 833 active coronavirus cases among the crew, and that 112 sailors had recovered. Two sailors were still in the hospital and one crew member has died.

Although President Donald Trump suggested that he might intervene in the investigation, the White House is not involved — yet, the first official said.

On Friday, the Navy also reported a new outbreak among its deployed ships when it said 18 sailors attached to the destroyer USS Kidd had tested positive for the virus. As of Saturday, that number had grown to 33 sailors, and two have been medically evacuated as the ship heads to port for cleaning.

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