The controversial sequence of events on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier stricken with COVID-19, which led to the resignation Tuesday of the acting secretary of the Navy, deserves a thorough investigation, U.S. Sen. Angus King said.

Clockwise from top left: U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.  File photos

King, a second-term independent, said what’s happened on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt has “shaken the faith in our Navy’s leadership” and requires a probe to find out exactly what happened.

The acting secretary, Thomas Modly, resigned after sharp criticism from many quarters, including several Maine politicians, after he insulted the carrier’s captain who had sought to protect the nearly 5,000 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt from an onboard outbreak of the potentially deadly virus.

Modly removed the captain of the nuclear-powered carrier, Brett Crozier, and then called him “too naive or too stupid” to retain command of the ship after a letter he wrote detailing his concerns about the pandemic’s impact on his ship’s crew became public. Modley later apologized for his choice of words.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, called Modly’s comments about the captain, made directly to his former crew, “insensitive and insulting” and insisted “he never should have used those derogatory words.”

Maine’s two members of Congress, both Democrats, called for Modly to quit hours before he handed in his resignation.

Other candidates for Congress and the U.S. Senate also expressed criticism of the Navy boss, some seeing his departure as an opening for the state to close the Bath Iron Works in a bid to protect its workers from the coronavirus.

Collins said Crozier “made a tough call in an effort to protect the health and safety of his crew as the COVID-19 virus continued to spread among the sailors in the crowded quarters of the aircraft carrier.”

She said Modly “should have followed the advice of the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, who wanted to conduct an investigation of the incident prior to making a decision about the captain, who cared deeply about his crew.”

King, who called Modly’s words “deeply inappropriate,” said the issues surrounding the case call “for an investigation into the actions taken at all levels since the Roosevelt’s first coronavirus case was discovered, with particular attention paid to the unique challenges created by the pandemic.”

“This situation has clearly shaken the faith in our Navy’s leadership and we need to learn the right lessons so it is not repeated,” he said. “In the days ahead, we must take appropriate steps to restore that confidence and make sure our top defense officials are taking every opportunity to protect our service members during this pandemic as they continue to conduct their critical national security missions.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, said early Tuesday that Modly showed “a profound lack of judgment and a callous strain of leadership that are beneath the office he holds.”

Modly’s “behavior and lack of leadership endangers the brave men and women of our Navy,” added U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a 1st District Democrat.

Both of them said Modly needed to resign.

Golden, who served in the U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the captain had sought to protect the health and well-being of his crew after several sailors tested positive for the virus last month. At least 200 more have tested positive for it since.

“Mr. Modly’s failure to meet the high standards expected of our Navy’s leaders renders him unsuitable for duty as acting secretary of the Navy,” Golden said in news release. “I believe he should resign.”

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Bre Kidman, a Saco lawyer who hopes to defeat U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in the 2020 election. Submitted photo

Pingree said in a prepared statement that “it was reprehensible for acting Secretary Modly’s to stand before the sailors of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and insult the decorated Naval Officer who was fired for trying to protect them from the spread of COVID-19. Acting Secretary Modly’s indefensible attacks on Captain Brett Crozier demonstrate that he is unfit to lead the men and women who serve in the Navy.”

King said he shared his colleagues’ concerns about Modly’s “decision to remove Captain Brett Crozier before conducting a thorough investigation, and agree that his remarks to the crew of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt were deeply inappropriate.”

Bre Kidman of Saco, who is running for U.S. Senate in a three-way Democratic primary, said that “Modly’s actions show a staggering disregard for the lives” of sailors.

“By firing Crozier,” Kidman said, “Modly essentially told sailors that their safety — even when not at war — is not as important as optics. No person who fails to recognize that the human beings serving are our military’s most precious asset has any business in a leadership role there.”

Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, another Democratic contender for the U.S. Senate, said there is nothing naive or stupid about Crozier’s effort to stop the spread of a potentially deadly virus aboard his ship.

Senate candidate Betsy Sweet Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

“The current administration has a bad history of suppressing and punishing whistleblowers who are acting in the best interest of their fellow countrymen,” Sweet said. “I was happy to see the acting Navy secretary apologize for his statement, but the Navy should go further and reinstate Capt. Crozier. This whole affair is shameful.”

Tiffany Bond, an independent U.S. Senate contender from Portland, said the armed forces have a responsibility “to respect the chain of command in both directions. Acting Secretary Modly’s actions were completely inappropriate, a disservice to the office, and intensely disrespectful to our service members who have their lives on the line for us.”

Pingree said Modly’s “perilous temperament demonstrates that he lacks the leadership needed to meet the unprecedented challenge we face. His unsound judgement extends beyond his degrading remarks aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt to his lack of responsiveness to concerns about the shipbuilding workforce at Bath Iron Works who are at risk.”

Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Sara Gideon of Freeport said Modly’s “actions over the past few days raised serious concerns about his judgment and ability to effectively lead our Navy — and that includes his ability to make critical decisions about the safety of our civilian shipbuilders like those at Bath Iron Works. The health and safety of its service members and the shipbuilders who support them should be the Navy’s priority right now, and by refusing to take action to keep them safe, Secretary Modly failed to lead.”

“Following his resignation, the Navy should grant Bath Iron Works the flexibility it needs to keep workers safe,” Gideon said.

Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

Golden said Modly demonstrated a “dangerous brand of leadership” toward “the men and women who form the backbone of our shipbuilding workforce, such as those at Bath Iron Works, who continue to work in close quarters despite obvious risks posed by the current COVID-19 public health crisis.”

Maine’s federal lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills had unsuccessfully pressed Modly and the Navy to allow more flexibility for BIW to address health and safety concerns among its workforce.

“At this critical moment, when leadership matters most, the Navy’s priority should be to maintain readiness by protecting its most valuable, irreplaceable asset – its men and women in uniform and the shipbuilders who support them – from COVID-19,” Golden said.

Before the news of the Navy chief’s resignation, Lisa Savage of Solon, an independent candidate for U.S. Senate this year, said Modly “traveled all the way to Guam to address the crew after he sacked their captain, and then spoke so poorly that he himself looks to be in danger of losing his post.”

Savage said she hopes that with public health at stake, Gov. Janet Mills will stop deferring to Modly’s leadership and take action to shut down the shipyard in order to protect Mainers.

Golden’s three Republican challengers, who are vying in a primary to be the GOP nominee in the general election, did not respond to requests for comment.

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