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Overnight Defense: Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with outbreak | Trump to expand use of defense law to build ventilators | Hospital ships receiving few patients

Overnight Defense: Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with outbreak | Trump to expand use of defense law to build ventilators | Hospital ships receiving few patients

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: The captain of an aircraft carrier struggling with a coronavirus outbreak has been relieved from command after a letter he penned pleading for help leaked to the media.

Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved from command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced Thursday.

Crozier wrote a letter to Navy leaders that was obtained and published by the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, in which he warned of dire consequences if most of the sailors on Roosevelt aren't evacuated.

As of Wednesday, 93 sailors on board the Roosevelt had tested positive for COVID-19. The 4,800-crew ship has been docked in Guam since last week while the entire crew is tested for the virus.

The letter that set it off: In his letter, Crozier pleaded in stark terms for permission to evacuate all but 10 percent of the crew from the Roosevelt, where he said it was impossible to properly isolate and quarantine sailors to stop a growing coronavirus outbreak.

"We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die," Crozier wrote. "If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset -- our sailors."

After Crozier's letter leaked, Navy officials announced they would offload 2,700 sailors by Friday.

Punishment not ruled out: At a briefing Wednesday, Modly would not rule out punishment for Crozier over the letter, but said it would be a matter of who gave it to the media over the letter itself.

"I don't know who leaked the letter to the media. That would be something that would violate the principles of good order and discipline, if he were responsible for that. But I don't know that," he said.

"The fact that he wrote the letter up to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation," Modly added.

Modly also called Crozier's comment on the Navy not taking care of its sailors "disappointing," adding, "I know that that's not the truth."

Lawmakers react: House Armed Services Committee leadership quickly fired off a statement after Crozier was relieved, calling his dismissal an "overreaction." 

"While Captain Crozier clearly went outside the chain of command, his dismissal at this critical moment – as the Sailors aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt are confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic – is a destabilizing move that will likely put our service members at greater risk and jeopardize our fleet's readiness," Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTrump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Mike Rogers set to serve as top House Armed Services Republican Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (D-Wash.) and Reps. Joe CourtneyJoseph (Joe) D. CourtneyRep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 Connecticut Democrat diagnosed with COVID-19 What we need to do next to defeat COVID and unify the country MORE (D-Conn.), John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiWuhan is the final straw: The world needs to divest from China GOP seizes on 'defund the police' to galvanize base Peace Corps faces uncertain future with no volunteers in field MORE (D-Calif.), and Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Pentagon puts on show of force as questions circle on COVID-19 outbreak Candymakers meet virtually with lawmakers for annual fly-in, discuss Halloween safety MORE (D-Calif.) wrote. 

"Captain Crozier was justifiably concerned about the health and safety of his crew, but he did not handle the immense pressure appropriately. However, relieving him of his command is an overreaction."

They added that dismissing Crozier without a thorough investigation may cause a "chilling effect" on commanders throughout the Defense Department. 

"Dismissing a commanding officer for speaking out on issues critical to the safety of those under their command discourages others from raising similar concerns."

Meanwhile, on the hospital ships: The Navy hospital ship in Los Angeles port, USNS Mercy, has treated only 15 patients so far since it arrived at the port last week.

Meanwhile, the hospital ship in New York City, USNS Comfort, has treated only three patients since it arrived at the city on Monday, the ship's commanding officer Capt. Patrick Amersbach told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. 

The vessels - meant to alleviate pressure on area hospitals - each can accommodate 1,000 beds, leaving the ships largely empty. 

The ships don't take walk in patients, rather, local hospitals refer patients to the vessels. To prevent the spread of coronavirus onboard, the patients are given coronavirus tests before they are treated. 

  

TRUMP TO EXPAND USE OF DPA TO BUILD VENTILATORS: President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE announced Thursday that he is expanding his use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to help several manufacturers secure supplies for ventilators.

Trump issued a memorandum allowing the secretary of Health and Human Services to use authority under the powerful Korean War-era law to help six companies, including General Electric and Medtronic, secure supplies to make ventilators.

"Today's order will save lives by removing obstacles in the supply chain that threaten the rapid production of ventilators," Trump said in a statement.

It's complicated: A range of companies have stepped forward to help produce more ventilators, life-saving machines that are needed to help seriously ill coronavirus patients breathe.

But the machines are complicated and require hundreds of parts from a range of suppliers. Trump's order appears aimed at trying to help solve that problem.

The process also takes time to ramp up even though companies have been working to increase their production of ventilators.

For example, Ford has partnered with GE to make the machines, but it won't have its first ones available until the end of April, when 1,500 are expected, and another 12,000 by the end of May.

Under pressure: Trump has long faced pressure to use the DPA to help address dangerous shortages of ventilators and other supplies like masks for health care workers.

But he has long resisted the idea, leaving governors to complain that states are left to bid against each other.

Illustrating the urgent need for more ventilators, New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoDreaming of space exploration? You're better off riding bikes Cuomo likens COVID-19 to the Grinch: 'The season of viral transmission' For Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty MORE (D) said earlier Thursday that his state would exhaust its stockpile in just six days, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said the New Orleans area would run out by April 7.

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Retired Gen. McChrystal urges Trump to make coronavirus fight national

-- The Hill: Top Armed Services Republican unveils proposals on military families, acquisition reform

-- The Hill: Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove'

-- The Hill: Iranian hackers target WHO staff email accounts: report

-- The Hill: Biden calls for sanctions relief for Iran during coronavirus pandemic

-- Reuters: U.S. Air Force recommends paying Boeing up to $924 million