House Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis

House Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis
© Greg Nash

The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday he still has confidence in Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back Former defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Major Russia weapons test stokes tensions MORE amid fallout from the firestorm over a coronavirus outbreak aboard an aircraft carrier.

Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On steel and aluminum trade, Trumpism still rules Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency MORE (D-Wash.) praised both Esper and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly as “competent, capable people,” but expressed concerns both are facing undue pressure from the “creeping influence of [President] Trump's approach undermining the decision making process” at the Pentagon.

Smith called for Modly’s removal Monday night after the acting secretary gave an inflammatory speech on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt defending his decision to fire the commander of the ship.

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Modly has since apologized, but Smith said Modly still needs to be removed because he likely lost the confidence of Navy rank and file.

“When I listened to the speech that acting Sec. Modly gave, it was almost like he was trying to do sort of a half-assed imitation of how Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE would have given a speech,” Smith said in a response to a question from The Hill.

“It wasn't what I would have expected from the Thomas Modly that I know,” Smith said. “And so now he's trying to figure out — forgive me for this line but I'll throw it out there — what would the narcissist do?”

Modly relieved Capt. Brett Crozier of his command of the Roosevelt last week after a letter the captain wrote pleading for help with the coronavirus outbreak on the ship leaked in the media.

Smith said he would have liked Esper to push back more when Modly told him he was going to fire Crozier, but that he still has confidence in Esper’s ability to be Defense secretary.

“It should have been obvious that if they relieved the commander of the Roosevelt at that moment that the public blowback that happened was absolutely going to happen,” Smith said. “So I guess what I would say is I was disappointed in the decision. I was disappointed that they didn't see the larger implications of that decision. But overall, I still have confidence in Sec. Esper’s leadership.”

Modly traveled to the Roosevelt on Monday to defend his decision, and a transcript and audio of his address over the ship’s PA system leaked in the media.

In the speech, Modly said that if Crozier didn’t think the letter would leak, he was “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.”

Alternatively, Modly said, if Crozier leaked the letter on purpose, that would be a “serious violation” of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

He also called Crozier’s action a “betrayal” and warned sailors that there is “no situation” in which they should go to the media, alleging “the media has an agenda” that “depends on which side of the political aisle they sit.”

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Modly at first said Monday afternoon he stands by “every word,” but by Monday night was apologizing.

"Let me be clear: I do not think Capt. Brett Crozier is naive or stupid,” Modly said in a statement. “I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.”

Smith said Tuesday the apology has not changed his mind about the need for Modly to lose his job because Modly is “going to have a heck of a time getting the confidence of the Navy back.”

“What really troubled me was, what on earth possessed the acting secretary to think that that speech was a good idea,” Smith said.

The “larger problem” causing that, Smith said, is Pentagon leaders “trying to figure out, how do I stay in the good graces of the tyrant across the river there who could potentially fire me tomorrow if I don’t.”

Smith added that he is still in touch with former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default MORE and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanProtection of critical military benefit shows bipartisanship can work Senators introducing bill to penalize Pentagon for failed audits Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE, both of whom he said “can go chapter and verse on what it's like trying to work for this president.”

“I think it's incredibly unfortunate that someone as capable as acting Sec. Modly wound up in this situation,” Smith said, “but after that speech on the carrier I just don't see how he can lead the Navy.”