Capt. Brett Crozier, fired this week from command of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, joins a growing list of Navy officers who attempted to raise concerns about the safety of their ships and crew, only to pay with their jobs.
Crozier wrote a letter dated March 30 warning that an outbreak of the coronavirus on his ship was a threat to his crew of some 4,000 sailors unless they disembarked and quarantined.
“We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily,” Crozier wrote. “Decisive action is required now.”
We do not know all the facts that prompted the letter. But we know that once it was published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, relieved Crozier of command. Crozier, 50, had been a rising star in the officer corps. He will remain in the Navy at his current rank, though his career future is uncertain. In viral videos, Crozier’s sailors can be seen cheering him loudly as he disembarks the Roosevelt, alone, before driving away.
Navy experts believe that the cumulative effects of the service’s decisions over the past several years to punish those who speak out will result in silencing sailors with legitimate concerns about their health and safety.
“This may have the effect of chilling the responses of other commanding officers because it will be perceived, fairly or not, as a shoot the messenger scenario,” said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former head of the United States Naval Institute, who called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal.
The Navy’s top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, initially praised Crozier’s attempt to warn his superiors. But the next day, Thursday, Modly, the Navy’s civilian boss, reversed course, telling reporters that he fired Crozier because he lost confidence in the officer for not using a secure email network to properly route his complaint.
Crozier’s unclassified email wound up with 20 or 30 other individuals and at some point was provided to the Chronicle reporters. Modly said the public airing of the complaint had unnecessarily alarmed sailors and provided enemies with information that exposed weaknesses on one of the country’s most important warships.
As part of our 2019 investigation into the incidents in the Navy’s 7th Fleet, its largest overseas presence, ProPublica found repeated instances of frontline commanders warning superiors of risks the fleet was facing — a lack of training, exhausted crews, deteriorating ships and equipment. Those warnings, all sent through the normal chain of command, were met with indifference.
Disaster in the fleet struck in June 2017, after the USS Fitzgerald, a destroyer, collided with a cargo ship in the Sea of Japan. Two months later, a second destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with an oil tanker in the Singapore Strait. The two accidents cost the Navy 17 sailors — the biggest loss of life in maritime collisions in more than 40 years.
Navy investigations laid blame on nearly the entire chain of command in the 7th Fleet, punishing commanders and sailors for failing to properly train and equip its crews and ships.
Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the head of the 7th Fleet, was fired. Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, who oversaw training, was forced from his job. Cmdr. Bryce Benson, captain of the Fitzgerald, was recommended for court-martial.
But ProPublica reported that all three men had repeatedly tried to warn higher-ups of dangerous safety issues in the vaunted fleet, based at Yokosuka, Japan. They argued to their superiors that the Navy was running ships in the 7th Fleet too hard, too fast. Their warnings were dismissed.
Benson, the Fitzgerald commander whose court-martial case was dismissed, said that Crozier “was right to strongly advocate for the safety of his crew and it was wrong for the SecNav [secretary of the Navy] to fire him for doing so.”
Senior leaders “continue to under-resource ships at sea and are slow to respond to commanders’ pleas for assistance,” said Benson, who is now retired. “From one tragedy to the next, senior Navy leaders continue to break faith with the fleet.”
Dismissing Crozier, Benson said, “sends a clear message to commanders: The authority and responsibility that you enjoy is yours alone and an absolute liability even when under resourced and thinly supported.”
Modly emphasized that he did not intend his actions to discourage officers from coming forward to report their concerns through the chain of command.
“I have no doubt in my mind that Capt. Crozier did what he thought was in the best interests of the safety and well-being of his crew. Unfortunately, it did the opposite,” Modly said at a press conference.
But Crozier’s firing has raised alarm anew that the Navy is more interested in its public image than in fixing problems raised by its sailors. It did not go unnoticed by fellow officers that Crozier was dismissed within two days of his letter becoming public. Such haste is unusual, and raised questions about the due process afforded to Crozier.
Some now believe that the cumulative effects of the Navy’s decisions over the past several years to punish those who speak out will silence sailors who have legitimate concerns about their health and safety.
“His removal sends a really strong message that coming forward will end people’s careers,” said Mandy Smithberger, a military expert at the Project on Government Oversight. “Before this I’d say that risk was more so implied through both social and professional retaliation. This is much more explicit.”
Crozier’s firing comes amid increased concern that the Pentagon is not acting quickly enough to protect whistleblowers. Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general for the Defense Department, testified that the agency has shown a reluctance to punish officials who take punitive action against whistleblowers.
“We have seen a disturbing trend in the DoD disagreeing with the results of our investigations or not taking disciplinary action in substantiated reprisal cases without adequate or persuasive explanations,” Fine testified in January to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. “Failure to take action sends a message to agency managers that reprisal will be tolerated and also to potential whistleblowers that the system will not protect them.”
Navy commanders may be fired at any time by their superiors. And the captains of Navy ships are uniquely responsible for any mishaps on their ships.
A study published earlier this year of more than 2,000 disciplinary cases found that Navy commanders were historically dismissed for “crimes of command” — such as a ship colliding with another vessel or running aground.
More lately, however, the study documented that it has become harder to tell if those punished are being disciplined less because of their performance and more because they had either internally or publicly called the Navy out for neglect.
“In the modern Navy,” wrote Capt. Michael Junge in the Naval War College Review, “a commander is most likely to be removed for personal misconduct or when the crime of command includes one or all of the following elements: death, press coverage, or significant damage to the Navy, whether materially or to its reputation.”
The President Is Trapped
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
We are now in the early phase of a medical and economic tempest unmatched in most of our lifetimes. There’s too much information we don’t have. We don’t know the full severity of the pandemic, or whether a state like New York is a harbinger or an outlier. But we have enough information to know this virus is rapidly transmissible and lethal.
The qualities we most need in a president during this crisis are calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; and the capacity to think about the medium and long term while carefully weighing competing options and conflicting needs. We need a leader who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than he does. We need a president who can draw the nation together rather than drive it apart, who excels at the intricate work of governing, and who works well with elected officials at every level. We need a chief executive whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.
There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities than Donald Trump.
But we need to consider something else, which is that the coronavirus pandemic may lead to a rapid and even more worrisome psychological and emotional deterioration in the commander in chief. This is not a certainty, but it’s a possibility we need to be prepared for.
Here’s how this might play out; to some extent, it already has.
Let’s start with what we know. Someone with Trump’s psychological makeup, when faced with facts and events that are unpleasant, that he perceives as a threat to his self-image and public standing, simply denies them. We saw that repeatedly during the early part of the pandemic, when the president was giving false reassurance and spreading false information one day after another.
After a few days in which he was willing to acknowledge the scope and scale of this crisis—he declared himself a “wartime president”—he has now regressed to type, once again becoming a fountain of misinformation. At a press conference yesterday, he declared that he “would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter,” which is less than three weeks away, a goal that top epidemiologists and health professionals believe would be catastrophic.
“I think it’s possible. Why not?” he said with a shrug during a town hall hosted by Fox News later in the day. (Why Easter? He explained, “I just thought it was a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline.”) He said this as New York City’s case count is doubling every three days and the U.S. case count is now setting the pace for the world.
As one person who consults with the Trump White House on the coronavirus response put it to me, “He has chosen to imagine the worst is behind us when the worst is clearly ahead of us.”
After listening to the president’s nearly-two-hour briefing on Monday—in which, among other things, Trump declared, “If it were up to the doctors, they may say … ‘Let’s shut down the entire world.’ … This could create a much bigger problem than the problem that you start off with”—a former White House adviser who has worked on past pandemics told me, “This fool will bring the death of thousands needlessly. We have mobilized as a country to shut things down for a time, despite the difficulty. We can work our way back to a semblance of normality if we hold out and let the health system make it through the worst of it.” He added, “But now our own president is undoing all that work and preaching recklessness. Rather than lead us in taking on a difficult challenge, he is dragging us toward failure and suffering. Beyond belief.”
Yes and no. The thing to understand about Donald Trump is that putting others before self is not something he can do, even temporarily. His attempts to convey facts that don’t serve his perceived self-interest or to express empathy are forced, scripted, and always short-lived, since such reactions are alien to him.
This president does not have the capacity to listen to, synthesize, and internalize information that does not immediately serve his greatest needs: praise, fealty, adoration. “He finds it intolerable when those things are missing,” a clinical psychologist told me. “Praise, applause, and accolades seem to calm him and boost his confidence. There’s no room for that now, and so he’s growing irritable and needing to create some way to get some positive attention.”
She added that the pandemic and its economic fallout “overwhelm Trump’s capacity to understand, are outside of his ability to internalize and process, and [are] beyond his frustration tolerance. He is neither curious nor interested; facts are tossed aside when inconvenient or [when they] contradict his parallel reality, and people are disposable unless they serve him in some way.”
It’s useful here to recall that Trump’s success as a politician has been built on his ability to impose his will and narrative on others, to use his experience on a reality-television show and his skill as a con man to shape public impressions in his favor, even—or perhaps, especially—if those impressions are at odds with reality. He convinced a good chunk of the country that he is a wildly successful businessman and knows more about campaign finance, the Islamic State, the courts, the visa system, trade, taxes, the debt, renewable energy, infrastructure, borders, and drones than anyone else.
But in this instance, Trump isn’t facing a political problem he can easily spin his way out of. He’s facing a lethal virus. It doesn’t give a damn what Donald Trump thinks of it or tweets about it. Spin and lies about COVID-19, including that it will soon magically disappear, as Trump claimed it would, don’t work. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Misinformation will cause the virus to increase its deadly spread.
So as the crisis deepens—as the body count increases, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the economy contracts, perhaps dramatically—it’s reasonable to assume that the president will reach for the tools he has used throughout his life: duplicity and denial. He will not allow facts that are at odds with his narrative to pierce his magnetic field of deception.
But what happens to Trump psychologically and emotionally when things don’t turn around in the time period he wants? What happens if the tricks that have allowed him to walk away from scandal after scandal don’t work quite so well, if the doors of escape are bolted shut, and if it dawns on even some of his supporters—people who will watch family members, friends, and neighbors contract the disease, some number of whom will die—that no matter what Trump says, he can’t alter this epidemiological reality?
All of this would likely enrage him, and feed his paranoia.
As the health-care and economic crises worsen, Trump’s hallmarks will be even more fully on display. The president
- will create new scapegoats. He’ll
- blame governors for whatever bad news befalls their states. He’ll
- berate reporters who ask questions that portray him in a less-than-favorable light. He’ll
- demand even more cultlike coverage from outlets such as Fox News.
- Because he doesn’t tolerate relationships that are characterized by disagreement or absence of obeisance, before long we’ll see
- key people removed or silenced when they try to counter a Trump-centered narrative. He’ll
- try to find shiny objects to divert our attention from his failures.
All of these things are from a playbook the president has used a thousand times. Perhaps they’ll succeed again. But there’s something distinct about this moment, compared with every other moment in the Trump presidency, that could prove to be utterly disorienting and unsettling for the president. Hush-money payments won’t make COVID-19 go away. He cannot distract people from the global pandemic. He can’t wait it out until the next news cycle, because the next news cycle will also be about the pandemic. He can’t easily create another narrative, because he is often sharing the stage with scientists who will not lie on his behalf.
The president will try to blame someone else—but in this case the “someone else” is a virus, not a Mexican immigrant or a reporter with a disability, not a Muslim or a Clinton, not a dead war hero or a family of a fallen soldier, not a special counsel or an NFL player who kneels for the national anthem. He will try to use this crisis to pit one party against the other—but the virus will kill both Republicans and Democrats. He will try to create an alternate story to distract people from an inconvenient truth—but in this case, the public is too afraid, the story is too big, and the carnage will be too great to be distracted from it.
America will make it to the other side of this crisis, as it has after every other crisis. But the struggle will be a good deal harder, and the human cost a good deal higher, because we elected as president a man who is so damaged and so broken in so many ways.