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WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary broadside punctuated with profanity, the Navy’s top leader accused the fired commander of the COVID-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt of being “too naive or too stupid” to be in charge of an aircraft carrier. He delivered the criticism to sailors who had cheered the departing skipper last week.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly harshly criticized Capt. Brett E. Crozier — and by implication those among the crew who had vocally supported him — in a lengthy and passionate speech aboard the ship, which is pier-side at Guam. Crew members are being taken off the ship to be tested for the coronavirus. At least 173 sailors aboard the ship have tested positive, as of Monday, and about 2,000 of the 4,865 crew members had been taken off. The Navy has offered no estimate of when the ship might return to duty.

While skewering Crozier, Modly also admonished the crew. He suggested that by cheering Crozier when he departed the carrier last week, they were overlooking their most basic duty to defend U.S. interests.

“So think about that when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that,” he said. “I understand you love the guy. It’s good that you love him. But you’re not required to love him.”

Modly urged the crew to stop complaining about their predicament, which he said made the Navy look weak. He suggested that some aboard the Roosevelt, including Crozier, had forgotten what matters most.

“It is the mission of the ship that matters,” he said. “You all know this, but in my view your Captain lost sight of this and he compromised critical information about your status intentionally to draw greater attention to your situation.”

Modly relieved Crozier of command of the ship last week, saying he had lost confidence in him for having shown “extremely poor judgment” in widely distributing a letter pleading for an accelerated evacuation of the crew. The dismissal turned into a hot political issue, with Democrats saying Crozier was wrongly fired for defending his sailors, and President Donald Trump denouncing Crozier and backing Modly.

Photo of U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier

In this Nov. 15, 2029, photo U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck while conducting routine operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. U.S. defense leaders are backing the Navy’s decision to fire the ship captain who sought help for his coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier, even as videos showed his sailors cheering him as he walked off the vessel. Videos went viral on social media Friday, April 3, 2020, showing hundreds of sailors gathered on the ship chanting and applauding Navy Capt. Brett Crozier as he walked down the ramp, turned, saluted, waved and got into a waiting car. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh via AP)

Modly Issued a Brief Statement Saying He Stood Behind His Remarks

The Sunday comments by Modly added fuel to the political fire, with at least one member of Congress urging he be fired.

An unofficial transcript of Modly’s remarks, as well as an audio recording, circulated widely on the internet Monday — demonstrating the slippery landscape that Modly accused Crozier of failing to navigate. Hours after the latest furor erupted, Modly issued a brief statement saying he stood behind his remarks but had not heard a recording and therefore could not confirm every detail in the transcript.

“The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for them,” Modly said, referring to the crew. “I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand. I ask, but don’t expect, that people read them in their entirety.”

Modly, a 1983 Naval Academy graduate, became the acting Navy secretary last November after Richard Spencer was ousted from the position. Spencer got entangled in a struggle over the war crimes case of a Navy SEAL, Eddie Gallagher, whose bid to restore his SEAL status became an issue championed by Trump.

In his remarks aboard the Roosevelt, Modly raised issues likely to please Trump. He accused the news media, for example, of manipulating a political agenda to divide the country and embarrass the Navy. He said China “was not forthcoming” about coronavirus when it began spreading there months ago, echoing Trump’s oft-repeated statement that China could have done more to prevent a pandemic.

And Modly invoked the name of Trump’s chief Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, noting that the former vice president had said Modly’s decision to fire Crozier was almost criminal. “I assure you it was not,” Modly said.

Photo of Navy crew

FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2019, file photo, U.S.Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew during an all hands call on the ship’s flight deck while conducting routine training in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet visited the leadership of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam, where the aircraft carrier is being cleaned after an outbreak of COVID-19 among its crew. The ship’s commander, Capt. Crozier, was fired for going outside of the chain of command in asking for help for the outbreak, in a decision now under review. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier via AP)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper Still Has Full Confidence in Modly

Modly said Crozier should have known his letter would leak to the media, allowing information about the ship’s compromised condition to be published. If Crozier didn’t think this would be the result, he was “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.”

Modly also accused Crozier of betraying his duty as an officer.

“It was betrayal,” Modly said. “And I can tell you one other thing, because he did that he put it in the public’s forum and it’s now become a big controversy in Washington D.C., and across the country.”

Shortly after reports of Modly’s accusations against Crozier began circulating in the news media Monday morning, some Democrats fired back. A leading Democrat on Capitol Hill. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, said Modly was out of line.

“Based on the transcript I’ve read, Secretary Modly’s comments were completely inappropriate and beneath the office of the Secretary of the Navy,” Kaine said in a written statement. “It’s deeply disappointing that he would deliver a speech on board a U.S. aircraft carrier suggesting that Captain Crozier might be ‘stupid’ and bashing the media for trying to report the truth. These dedicated sailors deserve better from their leadership.”

Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and former member of the Navy, called for Modly to be fired for his remarks, saying they show he is “in no way fit” to lead the Navy.

Asked Monday afternoon whether Defense Secretary Mark Esper still had full confidence in Modly, in light of the Navy leader’s remarks aboard he carrier, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman declined to discuss the matter.

The Navy’s top admiral, Mike Gilday, ordered a preliminary inquiry into events surrounding the handling of the crew in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 cases. The recommendations and findings by Adm. Robert Burke, the vice chief of naval operations, were expected to be submitted to Gilday Monday.

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