President Donald Trump criticized the ousted commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt at a press conference on Saturday, calling it “inappropriate” that Capt. Brett Crozier wrote a letter pleading with senior leaders to evacuate COVID-19-infected sailors from his ship while blaming him for making a port call in Vietnam despite the visit being approved at the highest levels of the Navy.
“Now I guess the captain stopped in Vietnam and people got off in Vietnam,” Trump said when asked to comment on the Navy's decision to fire Crozier, despite intense admiration among the ship's crew of roughly 4,000 sailors.
“Perhaps you don't do that in the middle of a pandemic or something that looked like it was going to be. History says you don't necessarily stop and let your sailors get off, number one,” Trump added, criticizing Crozier for conducting a port call he was ordered to make by Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Navy officials did not respond to questions from Task & Purpose on Friday asking whether Crozier raised any objection to making the port call. Still, Adm. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, defended the move as prudent in a March 24 press conference, since at the time of the visit, Gilday argued, there were only 16 positive COVID-19 cases in Vietnam that were well to the north of the port.
Meanwhile, Trump raised a bigger issue with Crozier's letter to Navy leadership, which later leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle. In the four-page letter, Crozier asked for permission to evacuate most of the Roosevelt's crew since at least 100 sailors on the carrier had tested positive for the virus.
“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors,” Crozier wrote, adding that if a war broke out, the Roosevelt would respond and fight both the enemy and COVID-19, But since the United States is not at war right now, Crozier wrote, the Navy “cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”
The number of infected has since risen to 155 sailors, though only 44% of the crew have been tested, according to CBS.
Crozier was fired days later by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modley, apparently at the direction of The White House, according to David Ignatius at The Washington Post. “Breaking news: Trump wants him fired,” Ignatius quoted Modly as telling a colleague one day before the firing.
Trump on Saturday said the captain's letter “was all over the place.”
“That's not appropriate. I don't think that's appropriate,” Trump said, adding that the decision was made by the defense secretary and others. “I thought it was terrible what he did. To write a letter, I mean this isn't a class on literature, this is the captain of a massive ship that's nuclear powered. And he shouldn't be talking that way in a letter. He could call and ask and suggest.”
Trump added: “But he stopped in Vietnam. A lot of people got off the boat. They came back and they had infection and I thought it was inappropriate for the captain of a ship. I agree with their decision 100%.
Crozier did not respond to a request for comment from Task & Purpose.