In what could amount to a stunning about-face for the Pentagon, congressional sources have confirmed to NPR that top Navy leaders have recommended that Capt. Brett Crozier be put back in command of the coronavirus-plagued aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
After Crozier's emotional letter pleading for a more decisive response to his ship's COVID-19 outbreak leaked to the news media on March 31, he was removed as the ship's skipper on April 2 by then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly.
The Navy's top civilian in turn resigned after denigrating Crozier in widely criticized remarks to sailors aboard the Roosevelt, who had hailed Crozier as a hero when he left the ship.
Adm. Michael Gilday, the Navy's top officer, is reported by The Associated Press to have met with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Tuesday and with Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday to recommend the fired captain's reinstatement.
Esper's spokesman confirmed the Friday meeting.
"This afternoon, Secretary Esper received a verbal update from the acting Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations on the Navy's preliminary inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt," writes Jonathan Hoffman in a statement emailed from the Pentagon.
"After the Secretary receives a written copy of the completed inquiry, he intends to thoroughly review the report and will meet again with Navy leadership to discuss next steps. He remains focused on and committed to restoring the full health of the crew and getting the ship at sea again soon."
The AP quotes Hoffman as saying before that meeting that Esper "is generally inclined to support Navy leadership in their decision" regarding Crozier.
But Esper is also reported to have asked for a delay in any public announcement while he weighs Crozier's fate.
The Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee reacted sharply on Friday to Esper's decision to hold back the results of the Navy investigation that concluded with a recommendation to give Crozier his command back.
"The Secretary of Defense needs to reinstate Captain Brett Crozier as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a statement emailed to NPR. "While Captain Crozier's actions at the outset of the health crisis aboard the TR were drastic and imperfect, it is clear he only took such steps to protect his crew."
Smith also blasted the former acting navy secretary's decision to remove Crozier.
"Modly's subsequent decision to board the U.S.S. Roosevelt and deliver a petty, obscenity-laced speech attacking Captain Crozier while the crew of the Roosevelt dealt with the COVID-19 outbreak should seriously call into question Modly's decision making ability in general," Smith wrote, "and makes it all the more clear that his decision to relieve Captain Crozier was completely wrong."
The sidelined captain himself tested positive for coronavirus after leaving the Roosevelt and has been kept in isolation in distinguished visitors quarters at a naval base in Guam, where the aircraft carrier is docked, according to The New York Times.
On the day Crozier was relieved of his command, 114 of his crew members had tested positive for the virus. That number has since risen to 856, and 4,234 of the ship's crew have been moved ashore to remain in quarantine. The Navy reports that all 4,938 sailors assigned to the Roosevelt have now been tested for COVID-19.