US navy official apologises for calling captain behind coronavirus memo 'naive or stupid'

Julian Borger
Photograph: Seaman Apprentice Kaylianna Genier/AP

The US acting navy secretary has apologised for calling the ousted captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt “too naive or too stupid” to be in command, amid growing calls from Congress and former officers for him to resign.

“Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naive nor stupid,” Thomas Modly wrote on Monday evening. “I think and always believed him to be the opposite.”

“I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused. I also want to apologize directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused.”

According to several reports on Tuesday, Modly was told to apologise by the defence secretary, Mark Esper.

Modly sparked a leadership crisis at the Pentagon when an audio recording surfaced of a speech he gave to the crew of the aircraft carrier, in which he denigrated the commander he had fired for having circulated a memo calling for more help for his crew, who had been stricken by a coronavirus outbreak onboard.

The acting navy secretary’s apology came soon after Donald Trump said on Monday evening he would intervene in the situation, and hinted he might reinstate the former Roosevelt commander Captain Brett Crozier.

“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,” Trump said, while stressing that Crozier should not have circulated the memo.

Referring to Modly and Crozier, the president added: “Two good people … they were arguing. And I’m good, believe it or not, at settling arguments … So I may look into it in great detail. And I’ll be able to figure it out very fast.”

In the recording of Modly’s speech on board the Roosevelt, published by the Task & Purpose military news website, heckling can be heard from the crew during the speech, which was otherwise greeted with silence.

Related: Captain of coronavirus-hit US aircraft carrier warns sailors will die if not let off ship

Modly justified his decision to relieve Capt Crozier of command last week, on the grounds that his four-page memo requesting more help for his crew, and asking for them to be moved on shore at Guam, had been circulated to more than 40 people. It was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, but Modly did not accuse Crozier of the leak.

“If he didn’t think that information was going to get out into the public in this information age that we live in, then he was too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly said.

In his apology on Monday night, Modly said: “I believe, precisely because he is not naive or stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship.”

During Mody’s speech on Sunday, someone (presumably a crew member) can be heard yelling “What the fuck?” Crozier was a popular captain and video circulated on Friday of the crew massing on the deck of the Roosevelt to cheer and chant the captain’s name as he left the ship, walking down the gangplank to a waiting car.

Modly criticised the crew for cheering, saying that they should think of the people of Guam, who were concerned about being infected by sick sailors brought ashore. He attacked the media, which he said were seeking to embarrass the navy, and accused Crozier of betrayal.

“It was a betrayal of trust with [sic] me, with his chain of command, with you, with the 800 to 1,000 people who are your shipmates on shore right now busting their asses every day to do what they need to do to … to get you guys off here, get you safe, get you healthy, get you clean,” he said.

Thomas Modly, acting US navy secretary, in December. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

“Everyone’s scared about this thing. But I tell you something – if this ship was in combat and there were hypersonic missiles coming at it, you’d be pretty fucking scared too,” he said, to a shout of “Whoa!” from the crew. “But you do your jobs.”

So far, according to the Pentagon, 61% of the Roosevelt crew has been tested for Covid-19, and 173 members have tested positive. Two thousand sailors, just under half the crew, have been moved ashore on Guam, though none have been hospitalised as yet.

Several Democratic members of Congress and an independent, Justin Lamash, called for Modly’s immediate resignation.

One of them, Adam Smith, the chair of the House armed services committee, said Modly was a competent and experienced official who appeared to have gone too far in trying to emulate and impress Trump.

“Acting Secretary Modly is going to have a heck of a time getting the confidence in the navy back, given that he made that speech,” Smith told reporters on Tuesday. “Why would a competent capable veteran with extensive experience and leadership skills make such an obvious mistake? I think it’s because everyone over there is trying to figure out how do I stay in the good graces of the tyrant across the water.”

After the recording of his speech was published, Modly initially issued a defiant statement saying he had not listened to the recording but that “the spoken words were from the heart”.

“I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis,” he said.

Modly became acting secretary in November after the former navy secretary Richard Spencer was fired for dissenting from Trump’s attempt to exonerate a Navy Seal, Eddie Gallagher, who had been accused of war crimes and was demoted after being found guilty of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter.