How the Navy's response to an aircraft carrier's coronavirus outbreak spiraled out of control and led Trump's top Navy official to resign

By Ryan Pickrell

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly resigned from his position as head of the service on Tuesday, just two weeks after he revealed the existence of a coronavirus outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, a first for a deployed US Navy warship.

Here's the timeline of all the twists and turns that brought it to this point.

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Anna Van Nuys/Handout

March 24:

The acting secretary announced at the Pentagon that three sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt had tested positive for the coronavirus.

March 26:

As the number of coronavirus cases on the warship began to rise, Modly announced that the ship would pull into Guam, where the carrier's entire crew would be tested.

March 29: 

Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and his senior officers, namely Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, the carrier strike group commander, and US Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino, discussed plans for the carrier, according to The Washington Post.

Crozier reportedly pushed for aggressive measures that would protect the health of the crew while the admirals focused on making sure the carrier was fit to carry out its mission.

Responding to the situation on the carrier, Modly asked Bob Love, his chief of staff, to reach out to Crozier and the two exchanged emails that night, The Washington Post reported.

Modly recently told The Post that when Love asked what Crozier needed, he calmly said "just speed" and to "get people off the ship as fast as we could."

Brett Crozier Theodore Roosevelt
Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, at an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck, December 15, 2019
US Navy/MCS Seaman Alexander Williams

March 30:

Modly's chief of staff called Crozier to "to ensure he had all the resources necessary for the health and safety of his crew," the acting secretary recently told reporters, adding, "The CO told my chief of staff that he was receiving those resources and he was fully aware of the Navy's response, only asking that he wished the crew could be evacuated faster."

For Crozier, it appears the Navy was not moving at a quick enough pace.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt's commanding officer sent out a letter over non-secure, unclassified email to 20 to 30 Navy personnel, including a number of people outside his chain of command, warning that "the spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating" and calling on the Navy to get sailors off the USS Theodore Roosevelt as fast as possible.

"Sailors do not need to die," he wrote.

March 31:

Crozier's letter is published in full by the San Francisco Chronicle early that morning. Modly said that he learned about the letter when he read it in the paper.

The acting Navy secretary had a teleconference with at least half a dozen senior Navy leaders within five minutes of reading the letter.

Speaking to CNN, Modly said that the Navy has "been working the past several days to get those sailors off the ship," but he acknowledged there were challenges. About 1,000 sailors had been removed from the ship at this point. There were around 4,800 sailors on board to start.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing examining military housing on Capitol Hill in Washington
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing examining military housing on Capitol Hill in Washington
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

April 1: 

Modly called Crozier directly and asked, "What's the story?" Crozier, Modly recently told The Post, replied, "Sir, we were getting a lot more cases. I felt it was time to send out a signal flare."

Later that day, Modly called Esper to inform him that "the direction I was headed" was to relieve Crozier.

April 2:

The acting Navy secretary decided to relieve Crozier. He called a press conference to announce that he had "lost confidence" in Crozier's "ability to lead" accusing the captain of exercising "poor judgment" by allowing the dissemination of the letter outside the chain of command.

Modly said he "could reach no other conclusion that Capt. Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID outbreak on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally, when acting professionally was what was needed most."

Crozier was relieved by Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt's executive officer Capt. Dan Keeler took temporary command of the ship pending the arrival of Rear. Adm. Select Carlos Sardiello, who previously commanded the carrier.

April 3: 

Videos of sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt cheering, clapping and chanting Crozier's name as he left the ship began surfacing online as Crozier's firing became a controversy.

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

April 4: 

President Donald Trump weighed in on Modly's decision to fire Crozier at a White House press briefing, telling reporters that he "thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter."

"I mean, this isn't a class on literature," the president told reporters. "This is a captain of a massive ship that's nuclear powered. And he shouldn't be talking that way in a letter."

April 5:

Modly told The Washington Post that he moved to quickly fire Crozier because he was concerned that if he did not act quickly, Trump would intervene.

The New York Times reported that Crozier has tested positive for the coronavirus. At that point, so had another 155 sailors aboard the carrier.

Modly flew out to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where he delivered a 15-minute speech bashing Crozier, suggesting at one point that he might be "too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer."

April 6:

Transcripts and a recording of Modly's speech leaked to the media.

"The spoken words were from the heart," Modly said in a statement following the leak of the audio recording. "I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand."

Democratic lawmakers began calling for Modly to either be removed or fired.

For example, Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran, wrote in a statement on Monday that "acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly's remarks to the crew show that he is in no way fit to lead our Navy through this trying time. Secretary Esper should immediately fire him.

Speaking at a White House press briefing that evening, Trump said that he would "get involved" in the situation. He did not clearly indicate how he might do that.

Later that night, the acting secretary apologized for his remarks aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. "I want to apologize to the Navy for my recent comments to the crew of the TR," he said in a statement. It was later revealed that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper directed the apology.

April 7:

The acting Navy secretary resigned, writing in a letter that it is "with a heavy heart" that he is leaving.

Modly "resigned on his own accord, putting the Navy and the sailors above self so that the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced late in the day.

Army Under Secretary James McPherson is expected to replace Modly. There are more than 200 sailors on the carrier that have tested positive for the coronavirus.