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.”
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.
President Trump’s third chief of staff seemed destined for the door until impeachment came along.
Mick Mulvaney’s job was in danger even before his disastrous press conference yesterday, and his equally disastrous attempt to walk that performance back. The fumble could not have been more poorly timed: According to multiple current and former White House officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations, Trump has been steadily souring on Mulvaney for weeks.
In his maiden briefing-room appearance yesterday, the acting White House chief of staff acknowledged that the Trump administration had held up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a politically motivated investigation—a quid pro quo that Trump has repeatedly insisted never took place, and is the subject of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The president has polled confidants about whether Mulvaney is up to the job, blaming him for leaks and negative news coverage, and considering whether he should find someone else to run the West Wing. It might stand to reason, then, that with Trump’s growing frustrations with Mulvaney—coupled with a performance yesterday that could put Trump in greater legal jeopardy than ever before—Mulvaney’s days as acting chief of staff are numbered.
Yesterday’s press conference was significant not just for Mulvaney’s revelations about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. It also laid bare just how key a role Mulvaney has played in those dealings. Mulvaney admitted, for example, that Trump had spoken to him directly about an issue at the heart of Congress’s impeachment inquiry: withholding aid to Ukraine partly because Trump wanted an investigation into a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee server.
Trump was not happy—and neither were his most prominent allies. The shock of Mulvaney’s admission was only compounded by the flippancy with which he delivered it: For those troubled by it, he told reporters, “get over it.” Mulvaney later walked the claim back, but even in the eyes of the president’s closest confidants, the damage was done. For a White House staffer, there is perhaps no worse place to be than in Sean Hannity’s crosshairs, and that’s where Mulvaney found himself yesterday, after undercutting the administration’s talking points on impeachment in a way that not even a Trump-loving Fox News host could spin. Shortly after the press conference, Hannity excoriated the acting chief on his radio show: “What is Mulvaney even talking about?” Hannity scoffed. “I just think he’s dumb, I really do. I don’t even think he knows what he’s talking about. That’s my take on it.”
Nevertheless, in the course of combusting the White House’s narrative on impeachment, Mulvaney unwittingly demonstrated why, at this fraught moment in Trump’s presidency, he may be untouchable: Should Trump fire him and leave him aggrieved, Mulvaney could prove a damaging witness in Congress’s impeachment investigation.
A former White House official said Trump “will be feeling the pain of having pushed out [former National Security Adviser John] Bolton at a very inopportune time. He won’t make the same mistake with Mulvaney, however frustrated he may be with him. Now, their interests are aligned. They sink or swim together.”
It’s a line of thinking that has come to permeate the West Wing, and it marks a significant shift in how Trump is beginning to view his relationship with his staffers. For the past two and a half years, the White House has operated like a radio perpetually set on scan, with Trump sampling staffer after staffer in search of those whose rhythms match his own. Indeed, as Mulvaney told us earlier this year, it’s made for a West Wing whose atmosphere is dictated by one particular maxim: “He could fire any of us tomorrow.”
With the backdrop of impeachment, however, some White House staffers could feel more secure in their jobs than even their boss—and that’s perhaps especially true of Mulvaney. As Democrats move forward in their investigation, they’re looking for star witnesses, those officials in Trump’s inner circle who could speak authoritatively as to whether Trump pressured a foreign power to open investigations into both the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden. And should Trump discard an adviser in his preferred manner—hastily announce the news on Twitter, then trash the person’s reputation—he or she may decide to become said star witness.
When Trump fired Bolton last month, he sent out a frosty tweet saying Bolton’s “services are no longer needed” and later mocked him for supporting the Iraq War. Since then, Bolton has made clear he has no desire to stay quiet, suggesting in a recent speech at a think tank in Washington, D.C., that Trump’s effort to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program is failing. Now Bolton is even better positioned to retaliate, and House Democrats may subpoena him to testify as part of their impeachment probe.
Bolton’s uncertain loyalty in this pivotal moment has convinced many of Trump’s allies that, eager as the president may be to oust him, Mulvaney is better kept inside of the White House. According to the current and former White House officials and others close to the president, people have been urging Trump to hold his acting chief in place, telling him that the risk of an aggrieved ex-official on the outside far outweighs any annoyances Trump may have with him. As President Lyndon Johnson famously said about then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, it’s better to keep him inside the tent “pissing out” than the opposite.
“The president always fears that people he either gets rid of or resigns will turn out to be a press liability,” one person close to the White House told us. “But, look, if you treat people like crap, you shouldn’t expect loyalty.”
According to legal experts, by keeping Mulvaney in place, Trump can make a stronger case that Mulvaney is immune from having to testify about conversations with the president. “It becomes more difficult to control those who are no longer part of the executive branch,” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, told us.
This is not to say, of course, that Trumpworld was quick to move on from Mulvaney’s disastrous briefing-room appearance. One of the president’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow, released a terse statement after Mulvaney’s press conference, saying that Trump’s legal team “was not involved” in the briefing.
However, the fact that Mulvaney still holds his job—in spite of the torrent of criticism inside and outside the White House—could underscore just how much impeachment has come to scramble the regular rhythms of this presidency. Gone, perhaps, are the days when Trump would give little thought to axing a senior official. Because while tell-all books come and go—promising a juicy anecdote here, a gossipy passage there—the impeachment inquiry is in motion. Which means the risk of ushering his staff into the arms of Democratic investigators is one that Trump may become less and less inclined to take.
There was a curious moment on Wednesday in the Oval Office, when Trump’s opinion of Bolton suddenly seemed to brighten. No longer did Trump want to dwell on his disagreements with Bolton or how Bolton had wrongly supported the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “I actually got along with him pretty well. It just didn’t work out,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, Sergio Mattarella.
It was as though Trump was telegraphing an understanding of the stakes, in this moment, of having his former national security adviser as an enemy. And earlier today, when he brushed off reporters’ questions about Mulvaney’s press conference, saying simply, “I think he clarified it,” Trump seemed to communicate another message of self-awareness: that he, more than ever, needs Mulvaney as a friend.
The position of director of national intelligence was created after the 9/11 terror attacks to prevent another such assault on the American homeland. The DNI, as the director is known, must oversee 17 intelligence agencies with a total budget of about $60 billion. There are few jobs more important in the federal government — or the entire country. Yet President Trump treated the selection of a DNI with less care and forethought than he would give to picking an interior designer for Mar-a-Lago.
When Dan Coats decided last month that he had suffered enough as Trump’s DNI, Trump reportedly called Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to ask what he thought about Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) as a replacement. “Burr responded that he didn’t know much about the lawmaker but would consult with a few people,” Politico reported. “But less than a half hour later, Trump tweeted that Ratcliffe was his choice.”
Trump picked Ratcliffe, it seems, because he liked the congressman’s obnoxious questioning of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in July hearings and his role in spreading cuckoo conspiracy theories about a nonexistent “secret society” of FBI agents supposedly out to get the president. But it soon emerged that Trump didn’t know much about his new nominee.
In the days after Trump impetuously announced Ratcliffe’s nomination on July 28, The Post and other news organizations discovered that the three-term congressman from Texas had greatly embellished his résumé. He had boasted that he had “arrested over 300 illegal immigrants in a single day” and had “firsthand experience combating terrorism. When serving by special appointment in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, he convicted individuals who were funneling money to Hamas behind the front of a charitable organization.” Turns out that Ratcliffe had played only a small role in a sweep of undocumented immigrants and an even smaller role in the Holy Land case; an aide told the New York Times that Ratcliffe only “investigated side issues related to an initial mistrial.”
With Senate opposition growing, Trump withdrew Ratcliffe’s nomination on Friday just five days after putting him forward. He had lasted less than half a Scaramucci. In pulling the plug, Trump both credited and blamed the media, saying, “You are part of the vetting process. I give out a name to the press and you vet for me, we save a lot of money that way. But in the case of John [Ratcliffe], I really believe that he was being treated very harshly and very unfairly.”
Ratcliffe was treated “very harshly and very unfairly” — but by Trump, not the news media. There’s a reason presidents normally vet nominees before, not after, they’re announced. It’s better both for the prospective appointee and for the president to have any skeletons uncovered before swinging the closet door wide open.
By ignoring the traditional way of doing things, Trump subjected his personal physician, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, to considerable embarrassment in 2018 by nominating him to become secretary of veterans affairs and then having to withdraw the nomination after stories emerged accusing Jackson of “freely dispensing medication, drinking on the job and creating a hostile workplace.” The Defense Department inspector general even launched an investigation of Jackson. Learning nothing, Trump repeated the same mistake this year when he nominated Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors — posts for which they were utterly unqualified. Facing Senate resistance, Trump had to withdraw their names — but not before unflattering details of Moore’s divorce became public.
And those are the good-news stories: the nominees who never took office. Much more common for Trump has been his discovery, after the fact, that his appointments were terrible mistakes. His clunkers have included a secretary of state
- (Rex Tillerson) who devastated morale at the State Department; a national security adviser
- (Michael Flynn) who was convicted of lying to the FBI; three Cabinet officers (Interior Secretary
- Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Health and Human Services Secretary
- Tom Price) who were forced out for improper travel expenses and other ethical improprieties; a secretary of labor
- (Alexander Acosta) who had given a sweetheart deal to a wealthy sex offender; and of course a communications director
- (Anthony Scaramucci) who was fired after 11 days for giving a profanity-filled, on-the-record interview to a reporter.
Coats is the 10th Cabinet member to leave the Trump administration. In President Barack Obama’s first two years in office, not a single Cabinet member departed. Trump also has a record-setting rate of 75 percent turnover among senior, non-Cabinet officials. The cost of this constant churn and chaos is high: It becomes nearly impossible to develop or pursue coherent policies.Trump is a president straight out of “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his protagonists: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In Trump’s case, the thing that he has smashed up is America’s government, and the cleanup cannot begin until January 2021 at the earliest.