The only thing that can lift the spirits of this grieving, embittered nation is watching the crew of the TR give this guy a conquering hero’s welcome when he returns from quarantine to retake command of his ship.
It has to happen.
It’d be the right decision too, as relieving him from command always seemed like an overreaction to his offense. Crozier should have known, and certainly did know, when he sent his letter begging for help with a COVID outbreak on his ship to a large number of other officers that it would leak to the media, embarrassing the Navy. He put his leadership in a bad position, forcing them to scramble to address his situation when they were trying to manage a coronavirus problem that would potentially affect the entire fleet. Disciplining him is understandable. But he was desperate and his intentions, to save the lives of his crew, were noble. Humiliating him by reassigning him seemed a step too far. It sounds like the Navy’s own leadership now agrees.
Capt. Brett E. Crozier should be restored to command of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy’s top officials recommended on Friday.
But Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who was briefed on the recommendations, has asked for more time to consider whether to sign off on the reinstatement of the captain of the nuclear-powered carrier.
Mr. Esper received the recommendation on Friday that Captain Crozier be reinstated from the chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael M. Gilday, and the acting Navy secretary, James McPherson. Defense Department officials said earlier that they expected to announce the results of the Navy’s investigation into the matter on Friday afternoon.
Mr. Esper’s decision to hold up the investigation has surprised Navy officials, who believed that the defense secretary would leave the process in the hands of the military chain of command.
That’s part of the reason why I think Gilday is inclined towards reinstatement. There were reports after Crozier was fired by ex-Navy chief Thomas Modly that top officers thought that Modly had acted rashly, that Crozier’s behavior should have been handled by the book via a formal investigation. Gilday’s new recommendation to return Crozier to command may be a way of underlining that belief: After the messiness of Trump intervening for political reasons in the Eddie Gallagher matter and then the messiness of Modly summarily relieving Crozier of command, seemingly to impress the president, reinstating Crozier after an investigation may be a gesture towards returning to regular procedure. Let the Navy handle its own personnel matters without political interference.
The fact that Esper is dragging his feet is intriguing. Trump said early on in this mess that he was pissed off by Crozier’s letter, feeling that it made the Pentagon (and him) look bad, but his tone softened after he realized how popular Crozier was with the crew and how he had become a cause celebre among the public. The president prides himself on being seen as strong and derives his sense of strength from perceptions that he’s popular with the military. Suddenly he was on the wrong side of the crew of an aircraft carrier on a matter that was dear to their hearts. Worse, sailors were reportedly incensed after Modly flew down to Guam and criticized Crozier in an address to the crew, a fiasco that led him to resign as acting Navy secretary. That was another black eye for the president within the branch. Soon he was telling reporters that maybe Crozier just had a “bad day” when he sent the letter.
The popular thing to do would be to restore Crozier to command. Maybe Esper’s leaning that way too (“he is generally inclined to support Navy leadership and their decisions,” said a Pentagon spokesman to CNN) but wants to double-check with Trump before he pulls the trigger. Or maybe he’s looking for ways to involve Trump in the decision, believing that the president will be more enthusiastic about a decision that can be spun as an act of presidential magnanimity than one that came from Navy brass as part of a by-the-book reconsideration. Either way, it’s hard to believe he’d overrule Gilday and McPherson by insisting that Crozier’s firing should stand, especially now that Modly’s gone. Why not let Modly take the blame for that decision instead of adopting it himself?
I’ll say this, though. If the point of firing Crozier originally was to teach a lesson that officers can’t go outside the chain of command by facilitating embarrassing leaks, no matter how well intentioned they are, I feel like that lesson might be somewhat undermined if (a) Crozier loses nothing and becomes a folk hero in the process and (b) the guy who fired him ends up being the only person tossed out on his ass. Esper could conceivably uphold Crozier’s firing for that reason, because the Navy can’t be seen as bowing to public pressure on personnel decisions even if Crozier may have gotten something of a raw deal here. Otherwise they’d be inviting other officers to try to make themselves media heroes whenever they have a pressing problem.
Ultimately Esper will defer to Trump and Trump will say it’s fine to reinstate him. It’s good politics and the sailors will love it. Besides, Modly’s claim that Crozier had been reckless in sending his letter to “20 to 30 people” turned out not to be true, per WaPo. He sent it to 10 people: His C.O., the head of the Pacific fleet, the head of naval air forces in the Pacific, plus seven captains, and reportedly only hit “send” after “several days of the Navy struggling to settle on a plan that would remove sailors quickly.” If his big sin here was cc’ing the captains, trusting them not to leak the email, is that really a firing offense?
By the way, fully 17 percent of the crew of the TR — more than 800 sailors — have tested positive for coronavirus. Another ship, the U.S.S. Kidd, has had 18 sailors out of 350 test positive and is en route to port in Washington state. “The more than one-month gap between its departure from Pearl Harbor and the first COVID-19 diagnosis suggests that one or more sailors were infected while in Hawaii, but asymptomatic,” reports Yahoo News. How many will be infected by the time the crew is safely back on land?