In an extraordinary broadside punctuated with profanity, the United States Navy's top leader accused the fired commander of the coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt of being "too naive or too stupid" to be in charge of an aircraft carrier.

He delivered the criticism to sailors who had cheered the departing skipper last week.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly harshly criticised Captain Brett Crozier — and by implication those among the crew who had vocally supported him — in a lengthy and passionate speech on board the ship, which is pier-side at Guam.

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Crew members are being taken off the ship to be tested for the coronavirus. At least 155 of the 4,865 members of the crew have tested positive, and the carrier is sidelined.

Captain Brett Crozier's departure from USS Theodore Roosevelt after being fired for sending COVID-19 warning. Video / YouTube

Modly relieved Crozier of command of the ship last week, saying he had lost confidence in him for having shown "extremely poor judgment" in widely distributing a letter pleading for an accelerated evacuation of the crew.

The dismissal turned into a hot political issue, with Democrats saying Crozier was wrongly fired for defending his sailors, and President Donald Trump denouncing Crozier and backing Modly.

An unofficial transcript of Modly's remarks circulated widely on the internet today. Several officials confirmed the authenticity of the transcript's contents. Modly himself issued a brief statement saying he stood behind his remarks but had not heard a recording and therefore could not confirm every detail in the transcript.

"The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for them," Modly said, referring to the crew. "I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand. I ask, but don't expect, that people read them in their entirety."

In his remarks aboard the Roosevelt, Modly acknowledged he was "hated" by some for firing Crozier. "I understand that you may be angry with me for the rest of your lives," he said.

Modly said Crozier should have known his letter would leak to the media, allowing "sensitive information" about the ship's condition to be published. If Crozier didn't think this would be the result, he was "too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this."

Modly also accused Crozier of betraying his duty as an officer, while noting that he had come under heavy criticism for having fired him.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly on board the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy.
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly on board the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy.

"It was betrayal," Modly said, according to the transcript. "And I can tell you one other thing, because he did that he put it in the public's forum and it's now become a big controversy in Washington DC and across the country."

The Navy's top admiral, Mike Gilday, ordered a preliminary inquiry into events surrounding the handling of the crew in response to the outbreak of Covid-19 cases. The recommendations and findings by Admiral Robert Burke, the vice chief of naval operations, were expected to be submitted to Gilday today.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said Modly was out of line.

"Based on the transcript I've read, Secretary Modly's comments were completely inappropriate and beneath the office of the Secretary of the Navy," Kaine said in a written statement. "It's deeply disappointing that he would deliver a speech on board a US aircraft carrier suggesting that Captain Crozier might be 'stupid' and bashing the media for trying to report the truth. These dedicated sailors deserve better from their leadership."

Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and former member of the Navy, called for Modly to be fired for his remarks, saying they show he is "in no way fit" to lead the Navy.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that the decision to fire Crozier was made by Modly, but that Esper had supported him. Trump over the weekend strongly criticised Crozier for writing and distributing the letter without first consulting with his immediate superior.

- AP