The Navy recommended to Defense Secretary Mark Esper that Capt. Brett Crozier be restored to command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier on Friday, according to an administration official.
Esper was not prepared to immediately accept the recommendation from Admiral Michael Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations after being briefed on the investigation into the circumstances around Crozier’s removal, telling top Navy officials he wanted more time to review their recommendations, two defense officials told CNN.
The defense officials told CNN that the Navy intended to announce its recommendation at a press conference Friday afternoon but it was canceled after Esper did not immediately endorse it.
They added that the expectation had been Esper would accept the recommendation.
The New York Times was first to report the decision.
The Navy’s recommendation is just the latest development in the ongoing saga involving the outbreak aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, developments that have included a dire warning about the spread of the pandemic, the ouster of the ship’s commanding officer and the resignation of the Navy’s top civilian official over his handling of the affair.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee called on Esper to reinstate Crozier.
“The Secretary of Defense needs to reinstate Captain Brett Crozier as commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt,” Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state said in a statement Friday.
“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 said, adding, “Crozier should be reinstated to his command immediately.”
After news of the Navy’s recommendation was reported, the Pentagon issued a statement saying that Esper had been briefed on the investigation but had not yet endorsed the Navy’s recommendations.
“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,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.
“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,” Hoffman added.
Earlier on Friday Hoffman told reporters that Esper “is generally inclined to support Navy leadership and their decisions but he will go into it with an open mind,” saying he expected to provide the press with “an update on what the investigation’s conclusions were” following Friday’s meeting between Esper and the Navy leadership.
The Navy later issued a statement saying that “Gilday has presented recommendations to the Acting Secretary of the Navy James McPherson,” and that McPherson “is continuing discussions” with Esper.
“No final decisions have been made,” the statement added.
A Defense Department official told CNN that “the Navy’s inquiry covered a complex timeline of communications between naval officers, as well as response efforts spanning a dozen time zones and multiple commands.”
“All this information was briefed verbally today in a meeting scheduled for one hour. Given the importance of the topic and the complex nature, the secretary is going to read the full written report,” the official added.
Asked if top lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees have been notified of the Navy’s recommendation, a Senate aide said they were expecting individual calls Friday from the Navy and Esper but that those calls were postponed, then canceled and ultimately rescheduled for next week.
Crozier was fired earlier this month for what the then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said was poor judgment by too widely disseminating a warning about the spread of virus aboard his vessel, a warning that eventually made its way into the press.
Modly resigned days later over his handling of the incident, actions which included a $240,000 trip to Guam where he slammed Crozier and admonished sailors for giving Crozier a rousing send off in public remarks to the crew.
While Modly publicly accused Crozier of sending his letter of warning to 20 to 30 people, the email to which the letter was attached shows that Crozier sent it to 10 people including his direct superior, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Washington Post.
“I believe if there is ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career,” Crozier wrote in his email, the contents of which a US official directly familiar with the message confirmed to CNN.
The email was addressed to Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, the commander of the carrier strike group of which the USS Theodore Roosevelt is a component and Crozier’s immediate commanding officer.
The email was also addressed to Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of US Pacific Fleet; and Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, another senior officer in the Pacific responsible for overseeing Naval Air Forces.
The message was also copied to seven Navy captains, all of whom were either serving aboard the aircraft carrier or working as aides to the admirals addressed in the email.
Following his ouster Crozier was initially reassigned to the headquarters of the Naval Air Forces Pacific command in San Diego but has remained in Guam where he is completing a mandatory quarantine period.
After he was fired Crozier was replaced as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier by the ship’s former captain, Rear Admiral select Carlos Sardiello.
Cases on ship have skyrocketed
The number of coronavirus cases aboard the Roosevelt have skyrocketed in recent days, with 856 sailors testing positive as of Friday, and four sailors have been hospitalized in Guam where they are being treated for coronavirus symptoms.
One sailor from the aircraft carrier has died due to contracting the virus.
The Navy has evacuated more than 4,200 sailors from the ship, representing more than 85% of the Roosevelt’s crew, and moved them into quarantine or isolation on Guam, an evacuation that was urgently called for by Crozier in his letter.
On Friday morning, a US Navy official told CNN that a second US warship had been hit by an outbreak of at least 18 cases of the virus.
The Pentagon later confirmed that there has been an outbreak on the USS Kidd which has a crew of around 330.
On Wednesday another senior Navy official told CNN there were coronavirus cases on 26 Navy warships, and another 14 have been hit by the virus but the crew members impacted have recovered.
While President Donald Trump initially criticized Crozier for writing his letter of warning, he later expressed sympathy for the captain following his ouster, citing his accomplished record as a helicopter and F/A-18 jet pilot.
“I’m going to get involved and see what is going on there because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day,” Trump said.
Asked last week about the investigation last week, Esper did not rule out reinstating Crozier and the Navy has repeatedly said nothing is off the table and that no final decisions have been made with regard to the investigation.
The Navy’s top admiral told reporters earlier this month that he is “taking no options off the table” as he reviewed the investigation and that he was under no pressure from Pentagon or administration officials to drive toward a particular outcome.
“I am taking no options off the table as I review that investigation I think that that’s my responsibility to approach it in a way with due diligence to make sure it’s completely fair and unbiased as I can possibly make it,” Gilday told a small group of reporters on a conference call.
Gilday also said that he has not spoken to Crozier and that he is under no pressure in terms of the investigation.
“I’m under no pressure from anybody in terms of my pace or in terms of any kind of influence, nobody has talked to me about that investigation – you’re the first people that I’m talking to about the investigation outside of my office,” Gilday said.
This story has been updated with comments from Rep. Adam Smith and Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.