Esper directed acting Navy secretary to apologize for comments ripping ousted captain: official

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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper directed acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to apologize to the sailors of the USS Theodore Roosevelt on Monday after Modly tore into the ship's now-ousted Capt. Brett Cozier over his leaked plea for help for the coronavirus-ridden ship, a senior U.S. official tells Fox News.

Modly initially called Cozier "too naïve or too stupid" to be a commanding officer of an aircraft carrier in a speech to the ship's crew, according to a transcript of the acting secretary's comments obtained by Fox News. Modly slammed Cozier for going outside of the chain of command and allegedly exposing sensitive information about the condition of the ship's crew to the public — and foreign enemies.

"So think about that when you cheer the man off the ship who exposed you to that," Modly told the crew members who loudly cheered Cozier as he left the ship after being relieved of his duties. "I understand you love the guy. It’s good that you love him. But you’re not required to love him."

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Modly later issued an apology to the Navy and Cozier and said, "Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Cozier is naive nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite. We pick our carrier commanding officers with great care. Captain Crozier is smart and passionate."

It's not clear whether Esper's order for Modly to apologize came before or after President Trump appeared to tacitly back Modly in comments at the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing Monday night. Trump also indicated that he didn't want to come down particularly hard on Cozier, saying he didn't "want to destroy somebody for having a bad day."

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Members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have called for Modly to be removed.

Fox News' Louis Casiano and David Aaro contributed to this report.