Trump’s Pick to Lead Navy Assails Past Leaders and Promises Change

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s choice to be the secretary of the Navy testified on Thursday that the sea service had suffered through “rough waters” over its handling of the virus-stricken aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and other recent episodes, largely because of poor leadership.

The comments by the nominee, Kenneth J. Braithwaite, were a blunt indictment of senior civilians and admirals who have led a Navy that in recent years has been racked by scandals and accidents. He cited the “Fat Leonard” bribery scandal that tainted much of the service’s top leadership as well as two ship collisions in 2017, nine weeks apart, that together killed 17 sailors.

“They are all indicative of a breakdown in the trust of those leading the service,” said Mr. Braithwaite, a Naval Academy graduate and retired one-star admiral. “It saddens me to say that the Department of the Navy is in rough waters due to many factors but primarily the failure of leadership.”

He pledged to the Senate Armed Services Committee “to restore the appropriate culture in the United States Navy.” He added: “I won’t say it’s broken. I think it’s been tarnished.”

Mr. Braithwaite, 59, who is currently the U.S. ambassador to Norway, also seemed to distance himself from some decisions made by Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary until last month. Over the objections of top military advisers, Mr. Modly fired Capt. Brett E. Crozier, who pleaded for help fighting the coronavirus on the Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Modly later resigned after he criticized the crew on an ill-fated trip to the Roosevelt in Guam for its support of the deposed captain.

Asked by Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, if he saw himself intervening in far-flung personnel decisions, Mr. Braithwaite said, “No, I don’t.”

“Good order and discipline starts with the chain of command,” Mr. Braithwaite said. “If I’m confirmed, I’ll ensure that is understood, from the secretary’s office all the way to the smallest vessel in United States Navy.”

Mr. Braithwaite, who spent 27 years on active duty and in the Navy Reserve as an aviator and public affairs officer, also told senators that he supported a decision last week by the current acting secretary of the Navy, James E. McPherson, to order a wider investigation into the events aboard the Roosevelt.

That new inquiry shelved for now a recommendation by the Navy’s top admiral, Michael M. Gilday, to restore Captain Crozier to command of the Roosevelt.

Mr. McPherson’s decision was interpreted by some Defense Department officials as reflecting concern among both civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon over getting on the wrong side of Mr. Trump. Captain Crozier was fired in part because of fears that Mr. Trump wanted him gone, and not knowing how the president feels about reinstating the captain has cast a shadow over the actions since.

But Mr. Braithwaite indicated he had no opposition to conducting the wider inquiry, which is expected to be completed by the end of the month by Adm. Robert Burke, the vice chief of naval operations.

Mr. Braithwaite said he was relying on lessons he learned preparing for and flying anti-submarine missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

“Whenever you’re confronted with a challenge like this, it’s best to pause, consider all the facts and then make the right decision,” Mr. Braithwaite said under questioning from Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

Mr. Braithwaite’s meeting with senators in a near-empty hearing room on Capitol Hill under Covid-19 restrictions came as the issues surrounding the Roosevelt, the Navy’s handling of the matter and the fate of the warship all remain under intense public scrutiny.

As sailors and other crew members who were quarantined on Guam return to the ship and begin preparations to return to sea, tensions have flared again between the ship’s medical personnel and Navy leadership over whether the Roosevelt is ready to go back to work in the Pacific Ocean.

Meantime, Captain Crozier, who had tested positive for the coronavirus, completed his recovery and subsequent quarantine on Guam. He reported on Monday to the Pacific Fleet’s Air Forces headquarters in San Diego and is expected to remain there at least for the duration of the new investigation.

Over and over, Mr. Braithwaite repeated on Thursday that his priority would be to rebuild trust up and down the chain of command, and hold those responsible accountable for any wrongdoings or misdeeds.

Mr. Braithwaite reaffirmed this under questioning from Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who asked about the extraordinary war crimes case involving a member of the Navy SEALs, Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher.

Late last year, the service was rocked by Mr. Trump when he fired Richard V. Spencer, the last permanent Navy secretary, after Mr. Spencer publicly disagreed with the president’s intervention on behalf of Chief Gallagher.

Chief Gallagher was accused of murdering a wounded captive with a hunting knife during a deployment to Iraq in 2017, and when the Navy prosecuted him, Mr. Trump intervened several times in his favor. When the chief’s court-martial ended in acquittal on most charges, Mr. Trump congratulated him and criticized the prosecutors. After the Navy demoted Chief Gallagher for the one relatively minor charge on which he was convicted, Mr. Trump reversed the demotion.

The commander of Naval Special Warfare, Rear Adm. Collin P. Green, then started the formal process of taking away Chief Gallagher’s Trident pin, the symbol of the Navy commandos, and expelling him from the SEALs. But Mr. Trump overruled the move and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper fired Mr. Spencer, who had supported the process.

Mr. Braithwaite said the Navy had gone through rough patches in the past and prevailed, and could do so again. “The department is resilient,” he said.

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