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Esper defends removing USS Theodore Roosevelt commander who sounded alarm over coronavirus

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday defended the recent removal of the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who warned that action was needed to save the lives of his crew from an outbreak of coronavirus, saying the move is an example of how “we hold leaders accountable for their actions.”

“I think acting Secretary (Thomas) Modly made a very tough decision — a decision that I support. It was based on his view that he had lost faith and confidence in the captain based on his actions,” Esper told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” “It’s just another example (of) how we hold leaders accountable for their actions.”

Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved of his command last week by acting US Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, for what Modly called “poor judgment,” going outside the chain of command and too widely disseminating the memo over an unsecured system.

In his memo sent earlier last week, Crozier pleaded with Navy leaders that “decisive action is required” to remove a majority of the ship’s personnel and isolate them for two weeks. The letter was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday.

Asked by Tapper if a current investigation into Crozier’s actions should have been launched prior to his removal, Esper said such a decision was “not unheard of” in the Navy.

“All the services at times relieve commanders without the benefit of an investigation up front because they have lost confidence in them. It’s certainly not unique to the Navy. The Navy has a culture of swiftly and decisively removing captains if they lose confidence in them,” Esper said.

CNN previously reported that as of Saturday, 155 sailors from the Roosevelt have tested positive for the virus, according to the Navy.

President Donald Trump said Saturday that it was “inappropriate” and “terrible” for Crozier to widely send the memo, remarking during a White House briefing on coronavirus that the commander instead “could call and ask and suggest.”

Asked Sunday by Tapper if he also thought Crozier’s actions were “terrible,” Esper said he couldn’t get into the facts of the matter because the ongoing investigation could eventually “come to my desk,” adding that Modly “laid out the reasons why” he relieved the commander and that “when all those facts come to bear, we’ll have a chance to understand why.”

Esper also said it was not Trump’s decision to remove Crozier, but rather that of the acting secretary.

“This was Secretary Modly’s decision,” he said. “He briefed me about it. I took the advice of the (chief of Naval operations) and General (Mark) Milley with regard to it and I told him I would support his decision.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Sunday criticized Crozier’s removal, calling it “close to criminal.”

“I think it is, I think it’s close to criminal the way they’re dealing with this guy,” the former vice president said on ABC. “Not his conduct. The idea that this man stood up and said what had to be said, got it out that his troops, his — his Navy personnel were in danger. In danger.”

Biden also said Crozier should “have a commendation rather than be fired.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Sunday.