WASHINGTON — The Navy is looking into whether it can reinstate Capt. Brett E. Crozier, who was removed from command of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt after he pleaded for more help fighting a novel coronavirus outbreak aboard his ship, Defense Department officials said on Wednesday.
Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, has indicated that he may reinstate Captain Crozier, who is viewed as a hero by his crew for putting their lives above his career, officials said.
“No final decisions have been made,” Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the admiral, said in a statement on Wednesday to The New York Times. Commander Christensen added that Admiral Gilday was reviewing the findings of a preliminary investigation into the events surrounding Captain Crozier’s removal.
But Admiral Gilday’s decision could be upended by President Trump, who has not been shy about intervening in military personnel cases. Only five months ago, Mr. Trump fired Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer for opposing the president’s intervention in support of a member of the Navy SEALs accused of murdering a wounded captive with a hunting knife during a deployment to Iraq in 2017.
No one in the Navy wants those events to be repeated, which included a Twitter admonishment by Mr. Trump of how the branch’s leaders handled the SEALs case. But Navy officials insist that Admiral Gilday will make a decision based on the findings of the investigation into the Roosevelt crisis, and not on what he believes the president wants him to do.
Mr. Trump himself has indicated he may be open to reassessing the events around the firing. He said recently that Captain Crozier “made a mistake,” but he also noted that the captain “had a bad day.” It remained unclear how the president would view a move to reinstate Captain Crozier, or when action would be taken.
Captain Crozier, who is in isolation on Guam with the coronavirus, was removed from command on April 2 by Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary at the time. The decision drew outrage among the carrier’s crew and across the country and eventually led to Mr. Modly’s resignation.
Admiral Gilday and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had both cautioned Mr. Modly not to fire Captain Crozier until after an investigation into the case has been completed. Mr. Modly, believing Mr. Trump wanted the captain dismissed, ignored them, officials said.
As of Wednesday, 615 Roosevelt crew members have tested positive for the coronavirus; five are in the hospital with one in intensive care, and one has died. The death of the sailor on Monday was a poignant punctuation to Captain Crozier’s plea for help on March 30, after four days in which his superiors rebuffed his request to evacuate the ship. In an emailed letter, he wrote, “Sailors don’t need to die.”
That plea, sent to 20 Navy personnel, became public and angered Mr. Modly, which led to his decision to remove the captain from his post.
Admiral Gilday indicated last week that he was open to reinstating Captain Crozier once the preliminary investigation was completed. “I am taking no options off the table as I review that investigation,” he told reporters. “I think that is my responsibility.”
Any decision to reinstate Captain Crozier would come with its own problems. Navy officials remain unhappy that the captain sent an unclassified letter seeking help to so many people, instead of relying on his chain of command. For the Navy to reinstate him, Admiral Gilday would have to determine that Captain Crozier’s superiors were not adequately responsive to requests for help before the letter had been sent, Navy officials said.
Admiral Gilday already has the findings of an initial investigation into the Roosevelt case. But that investigation was conducted by Adm. Robert P. Burke, the Navy’s second-highest admiral, who was involved in the situation aboard the Roosevelt. As part of the investigation, Admiral Burke called the senior medical officer aboard the ship and criticized the doctor, saying he had failed as a leader, according to crew members.
In the run-up to Captain Crozier’s letter, the ship’s medical staff and the captain advocated swift, decisive action, while Captain Crozier’s immediate boss, Rear Adm. Stuart P. Baker, countered that less drastic measures would still protect the crew and leave the Roosevelt in operation.
Admiral Gilday told reporters this month that the investigation would focus in part on why Captain Crozier, a Naval Academy graduate with nearly 30 years of service, felt compelled to send his four-page letter outside normal communications channels and whether that illustrated a breakdown in communications with his chain of command, particularly with Admiral Baker. The Navy has said Captain Crozier did not copy Admiral Baker on his letter.
Before the results are made public, Admiral Gilday will consult with the new acting Navy secretary, James E. McPherson, as well as with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and General Milley.
“The Navy investigation now in progress should take its time and make sure we truly understand the detailed ‘ticktock’ of events that preceded the letter launched by Captain Crozier,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former top commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “If it becomes clear that his chain of command was not responsive, it makes a potential case for rehabilitation much stronger.”
Mr. Esper, the Pentagon’s top civilian, has not indicated where he stands on the investigation. Appearing on Fox News on Wednesday, he appeared to acknowledge that he might eventually have to weigh in. “At some point it likely will come to me,” he said. “But the most important thing though is taking care of our sailors who are now in Guam.”
The investigation will not examine why the Roosevelt, and its nearly 5,000 crew members, made a long-scheduled, four-day port call in Da Nang, Vietnam, beginning on March 5, despite reported cases of the coronavirus in the country.
The top United States military officer in Pacific, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, ordered the visit to proceed as a show of military might in a region increasingly worried about China’s growing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Navy and Pentagon officials have since defended the decision, saying there were only a handful of reported coronavirus cases, mostly in the northern part of the country, at the time the Roosevelt pulled in. Navy officials publicly say they are not sure how the virus got aboard the ship, but privately acknowledge that it almost certainly happened during the port call.
In Guam, many among the Roosevelt’s crew say they are hoping Captain Crozier will return as their captain. One crew member described the commander as prescient during every chapter of the crisis. While the ship’s interim commander, Capt. Carlos A. Sardiello, who commanded the Roosevelt previously, is viewed favorably by much of the crew, he is not seen to be as receptive to them as Captain Crozier was when he was in charge.