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How the U.S. Navy handled a tumultuous week

The U.S. Navy has had a tumultuous week, beginning with a request from the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt to evacuate most of his ship due to a COVID-19 outbreak, and culminating with the resignation of the Navy secretary who fired him. Nick Schifrin talks to retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to how the pandemic is affecting the U.S. military.

    As of this morning, the Pentagon says it has more than 3,000 positive cases across the services. That includes more than 150 sailors on an American aircraft carrier currently docked in Guam.

    That created its own story.

    Nick Schifrin has more.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, it has been a tough week for the Navy.

    First, the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt wrote a remarkable memo requesting that he evacuate 90 percent of his sailors because of an outbreak of COVID-19.

    In response, acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly relieved him, saying he had gone around the chain of command. Modly then flew to the Theodore Roosevelt on Guam and gave a blunt speech, including this statement:

  • Thomas Modly:

    It was my opinion that, if he didn't think that information was going to get out into the public, in this information age that we live in, then he was, A, too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yesterday, after a lot of criticism, Modly resigned.

    To talk about this, I'm joined by Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

    Admiral, thank you very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    How do you think the Navy has handled this situation?

  • Ret. Admiral Michael Mullen:

    Well, as you have said, it's been a tough week.

    And it was very clear that the Navy couldn't get out in front of this early enough, before the acting secretary, Modly, grabbed it and obviously made up his mind to remove the C.O.

    And there were an awful lot of issues associated with that. All of that said, I didn't think that Captain Crozier's conduct rose to the level or even close to the level where he should have been relieved.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What Modly told us, told the media last week, and what others have echoed is that Captain Crozier went out of the chain of command.

    He sent this memo electronically, didn't even C.C. his commanding officer, who was down the hall, literally, from him at the time. Is that criticism legitimate?

  • Admiral Michael Mullen:

    Well, I think that, certainly, Captain Crozier didn't handle all of it exceptionally well.

    And it is indeed strange that he appeared to not have much of a relationship with his immediate boss, who was embarked on the ship with him.

    That said, I think what Captain Crozier was trying to do was what all C.O.s try to do, take care of their people, and watch out for their health and welfare, and, obviously, in the middle of a crisis. And it was an exponential crisis.

    I think Crozier's letter actually was literally a cry for help in moving as fast as possible, because he was afraid some of his young sailors were going to die.

    He didn't do it smoothly. But, at the same time, he — it didn't meet the standard, I think, where he should have been relieved.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We have talked about how Secretary Modly did have to go, in your opinion.

    Do you think he had to go because of the fact that he fired Captain Crozier or because of the language he used on the Theodore Roosevelt?

  • Admiral Michael Mullen:

    I thought — I listened to the — his speech on the Theodore Roosevelt.

    I have literally never heard any senior civilian or senior officer talk like that to the crew. And from my perspective, when he walked off that ship, that was the time for him to walk out of the Navy. There just wasn't my question about it.

    He didn't have any credibility left with the troops. He didn't have any credibility left, apparently, with the administration. And so he really — for the good of the Navy, he needed to move on, which is what he did.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's broaden the discussion to the overall response to COVID-19.

    We have now seen thousands of members of the military come back with positive responses. I have spoken to some people who criticized Secretary Esper for a couple of things, one, not responding quickly enough, but also deputizing some of these decisions to lower-level commanders, allowing lower-level commanders to decide how to respond to COVID-19.

    Is that a legitimate criticism? How do you think the Pentagon has done overall in response to COVID-19?

  • Admiral Michael Mullen:

    Well, I think the challenge for the Pentagon has not been unlike the country's: How do you get ahead of this, particularly when it's moving so quickly, and you don't have the kind of testing capability, if you will, to find out how serious it really is?

    There's part of the armed forces, I know, in South Korea, that has done exceptionally well on this, because it appears as though General Abrams moved, as the South Koreans moved, very, very rapidly.

    And it's — and decisions like this are always fraught with, how much do you control, and how much do you let your commanders take care of? By and large, the military, at the commander level — and that's really the flag and general officer level — should have a pretty good handle on how to handle this.

    And then they delegate it down or they give direction down the chain of command to handle it well. There certainly is some evidence that it's not well understood on the waterfront, that there are differences in how it's being handled on the waterfront.

    And I think that needs to be solidified, not just in the Navy, but throughout the services.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And going forward, do you fear the Navy is ready to handle a pandemic, to handle this kind of medical challenge, as it's trying to handle the challenge that China poses?

  • Admiral Michael Mullen:

    I — actually, I think the Navy is ready to do that and actually has been handling it for weeks. And it needs to obviously have the right focus, make sure that the measures that are taken are minimizing the risk to the troops, and putting the troops in a position where their priority and at the same time aware of the mission specifically out in the Western Pacific with respect to China.

    And leaders need to focus hard on getting it right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Admiral, you just said it's a challenge for all leaders.

    I have to ask, how do you think President Trump has responded to this crisis?

  • Admiral Michael Mullen:

    I think it's pretty well a consensus that we haven't acted very quickly. The administration hasn't acted very quickly.

    And from a leadership standpoint, you know, when you're in a crisis, there's nobody more critical than a leader at every single level of government, or the chain of command, or any organization.

    And I think it's really important that the — what leaders — what the president says, how he says it, in addition to what he does — leaders need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

    And I think that's really critical for the country and actually for the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And it sounds like you're criticizing the president. It sounds like you're suggesting that he hasn't done that.

  • Admiral Michael Mullen:

    Well, I will let you deduce what you want to from that comment.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thank you very much.

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