Thomas Modly, acting Secretary of the US Navy, reportedly belittled Capt. Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt after the captain was relieved of his command for sending a letter asking for his sailors to be evacuated from the ship due to a rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak on board.
The inflammatory comments were reportedly from a speech Mr Modly gave to sailors on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The Daily Caller claims it obtained a transcript of the speech.
"If [Crozier] didn't think, in my opinion, that [the letter] wasn't going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we line in, then he was either A, too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this," Mr Modly said. "The alternative is that he did this on purpose."
Mr Modly said the letter was a "betrayal of trust" and that it contained "sensitive information" about the condition of the carrier.
More than 100 sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt - including Mr Crozier - have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak began on the ship.
Videos of Mr Crozier leaving the USS Theodore Roosevelt went viral as hundreds of sailors packed in to see the commanding officer depart, cheering and chanting his name as he left.
Mr Crozier was widely praised for sounding the alarm to try to secure the safety of his crew despite the professional costs.
Mr Modly reportedly chastised the sailors for cheering for Mr Crozier.
"So think about [him betraying the Navy's trust] when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that," Modly said. "I understand you love the guy. It's good that you love him. But you're not required to love him."
The Secretary of the Navy was met with hostility by the ship’s sailors for attacking Mr Crozier.
A recording of the speech, posted at Task & Purpose, includes an angry sailor shouting “what the f***” after Modly insulted the captain, and another sailor yelling “He was trying to help us!”
When Mr Modly suggested Mr Crozier had committed a “betrayal,” they began shouting in defiance.
He also criticised Mr Crozier for not going through proper chain of command channels to address his needs, and accused the media of having an agenda.
"And I'm gonna tell you something, all of you, there is never a situation where you should consider the media a part of your chain of command," Mr Modly said, apparently warning his sailors not to whistleblow. "The media has an agenda and the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit, and I'm sorry that's the way the country is now, but its the truth. And so they use it to divide us and use it to embarrass the Navy. They use it to embarrass you."
Mr Modly’s statements are in line with President Donald Trump’s tendency to paint the US government as a victim of China’s response to the virus rather than as having been unprepared to deal with the crisis. Mr Trump has taken to calling the virus the “Chinese virus,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to strong-arm G8 ministers into calling the virus the “Wuhan Virus” and Mr Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr as well as other staffers in the Trump White House have referred to it as the “Kung-Flu.”
Mr Trump and Mark Esper, the US Secretary of Defense, said they disagreed with Mr Crozier’s call for an evacuation of the ship.
The president blamed Mr Crozier for allowing the sailors on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt shore leave in Vietnam during the early days of the pandemic’s spread in the US.
“I guess the captain stopped in Vietnam and people got off in Vietnam and perhaps you don’t do that in the middle of a pandemic,” Mr Trump said. “History would say you don’t necessarily stop and let your sailors get off.”
Vietnam currently has fewer than 300 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and no signs of wide-spread viral outbreak were apparent in early March when the ship stopped there. Mr Trump was still expressing doubt as to the severity of the coronavirus in early March.
Meanwhile, Mr Esper said he disagreed with Mr Crozier’s pleas for evacuation during a CBS News interview, but admitted he had not even read the letter Mr Crozier sent pleading for help.
At the end of his speech, Mr Modly told the sailors they could “be angry” with him for “the rest of your lives” but assured them they would receive the help they need as the virus continues to work its way through their ranks.
Mr Modly's office has not returned a request for comment.
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