Acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly resigned on Tuesday after drawing condemnation for insulting a naval officer who had written a letter of concern about the service’s handling of a coronavirus outbreak on an aircraft carrier.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who accepted Modly’s resignation, said in a memo that he had “the greatest respect for anyone who serves our country, and who places the greater good above all else.”
“Secretary Modly did that today, and I wish him all the best,” Esper said.
The decision comes after Modly traveled from Washington to Guam on Monday to give a speech to the 5,000-member crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, whose commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, Modly removed last week.
In profanity-laced remarks over a loudspeaker, Modly assailed Crozier’s character, accusing him of either leaking a letter about his concerns to the news media or of being “too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this.”
Modly’s comments, leaked to reporters within hours in written and audio form, angered many of the sailors on the ship, where 230 people have tested positive for covid-19 as of Tuesday, and their relatives, and triggered calls for his resignation from several Democratic lawmakers.
By Monday night, Modly had released a statement apologizing for insulting Crozier, who has also tested positive for the virus, but insisting that the captain had written the letter to cause a stir.
“Captain Crozier is smart and passionate,” Modly said. “I believe, precisely because he is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of it getting into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship.”
Esper referenced the imbroglio in his memo, saying that Modly “resigned on his own accord” and that his decision would allow the aircraft carrier and its sailors to “move forward.”
Esper had asked Modly to apologize on Monday, hoping that would be sufficient to move beyond the controversy, according to a senior administration official. But instead the pressure for Modly’s resignation increased, including among other players within the Defense Department, the official said.
President Donald Trump, asked at the White House about the resignation, said he had no role in it and did not know Modly, but would not have asked him to resign.
“He did that, I think, just to end that problem,” Trump said. “I think . . . really in many ways, it was a very unselfish thing for him to do.”
Modly, in a memo released Tuesday night, said the Navy was placed in a negative spotlight “largely due to my poor use of words” on the aircraft carrier.
“You are justified in being angry with me about that,” he wrote. “There is no excuse, but perhaps a glimpse of understanding, and hopefully empathy.”
He added that the crew “deserved a lot more empathy and a lot less lecturing,” and that he was sorry.
Taking Modly’s place will be Army undersecretary James McPherson, who was confirmed last month as the Army’s No. 2 political appointee. McPherson previously served in the Trump administration as the Army’s general counsel and in the Navy as a lawyer before retiring in 2006 as Judge Advocate General of the Navy.
McPherson is expected to serve in an acting capacity until Trump’s nominee for the position, the U.S. ambassador to Norway, Kenneth John Braithwaite II, is confirmed by the Senate.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the minority leader of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement released Tuesday that Modly had notified him of his decision.
“I stressed to him that the health and safety of our sailors is paramount and that naval leadership must make it absolutely clear the decision to relieve Captain Crozier is in no way interpreted as inhibiting any commanding officer from taking necessary steps, through their chain of command, to protect fellow sailors and Marines,” Reed said.
The turmoil marks the latest challenge for a Navy that has struggled in recent years with broader leadership upheaval. Modly’s resignation comes after his predecessor, Richard Spencer, was fired in November amid a scandal over Trump’s intervention in a Navy SEAL war crimes case, leaving the service without a political appointee at its helm for months.
Separate crashes in 2017 of the guided missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain led to 17 deaths among the sailors on board and raised further questions about Navy leadership. Even before those incidents, a scandal over a Malaysian defense contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard” who bribed Navy officials with cash, prostitutes and other incentives tarnished many officers who had been seen as leading candidates for top service posts.
The result left Modly – a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard Business School who didn’t have a particularly personal or close relationship with the president – in the hot seat atop the service at a time when the leadership was under intense scrutiny and the Navy was dealing with a public health crisis.
The son of Eastern European immigrants who moved to the United States after World War II, Modly was raised in Cleveland, according to his official Navy biography. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1983 and served as a helicopter pilot before leaving active duty in 1990 to attend business school.
Modly worked as an executive at multiple companies, including most recently at the consulting firm PwC, where he handled the NATO account, before being tapped in 2017 as undersecretary of the Navy under former defense secretary Jim Mattis.
With his resignation, Modly has gone from being a little-known behind-the-scenes official, who worked as his service’s chief management and chief information officer, to the public face of one of its most explosive military scandals in recent years. It pitted a captain praised for sacrificing his career in service to his crew against a Trump administration already facing criticism for a sluggish and haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The incident has raised questions about how much transparency the military should display when faced with a public health crisis and how top leaders should balance the need to safeguard the well-being of service members with the imperative to continue military missions.
Upon becoming public, Crozier’s letter fed into the very narrative that the White House was looking to dispel about leadership in Washington failing to take serious enough steps in early days to contain the outbreak.
His firing has been seen among the aircraft carrier’s crew as an attempt to muzzle any leaks of information about the situation on the vessel that could become politically inconvenient for top officers and civilian appointees in Washington. During his trip to Guam, Modly warned the aircraft carrier’s crew not to speak to the news media.
A spokesman for Modly did not respond to a request for an interview.
Trump initially supported Modly and attacked Crozier’s letter as terrible. But the president moderated his stance after news of the acting Navy secretary’s controversial remarks broke.
At a news conference Monday, Trump maintained that Crozier should not have sent the letter but said he had been hearing good things about the captain and his career before that. “So I’m going to get involved and see what is going on there, because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day,” Trump said.
Though both the Pentagon and the White House have said Trump was not personally involved in the decision to fire Crozier, the specter of drawing the president’s ire drove Modly’s decision act quickly to fire the captain before conducting a thorough investigation.
In an interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Modly said what happened to his predecessor, who got “crosswise” with the White House over Trump’s intervention in the war crimes case of Navy SEAL Edward “Eddie” Gallagher, was fresh in his mind when he decided to fire Crozier. Modly essentially said he took such swift action to prevent a personal intervention by Trump.
“I didn’t want to get into a decision where the president would feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn’t be decisive,” Modly said. “If I were president, and I saw a commanding officer of a ship exercising such poor judgment, I would be asking why the leadership of the Navy wasn’t taking action itself.”
Modly said he was aware his predecessor lost his job because the Navy “got crossways with the president,” and said, “I didn’t want that to happen again.”
At the heart of the debacle are questions about what a military leader should do when faced with a chain of command he thinks is making decisions that are imperiling the health and well-being of service members.
After the first three coronavirus cases emerged on the ship, Crozier and his superiors struggled to reach a consensus about what steps should be taken, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
Crozier wanted a more aggressive effort at the start to protect the crew’s health, even if that meant taking near-unprecedented steps, such as a 90 percent evacuation of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier operating in the Pacific as a signal to China of American military might. His immediate superiors favored smaller mitigation efforts, which Crozier felt were insufficient to ensure that sailors did not become seriously ill.
The captain said the carrier could set sail immediately if it were a matter of war and would be prepared to win a conflict despite the outbreak on board. “However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily,” Crozier wrote.
He pointed out that it was impossible for him to follow the social distancing guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released because of the close quarters and shared facilities for the crew aboard the carrier. Crozier noted that even crew members who tested negative for covid-19 were later showing up with symptoms, meaning the only solution was large-scale isolation.
Crozier requested that the Navy provide off-ship lodging that complied with the CDC guidelines for more than 4,000 sailors in his crew to isolate them and return them to the ship virus-free after a period of quarantine. In the meantime, he said, the ship should be disinfected and 10 percent of the crew should remain on board to run the nuclear reactor plant, sanitize the ship and ensure security.
Ultimately, the Navy has begun a large-scale evacuation of the ship to facilities in Guam, but so far the action has not been quite as extensive as Crozier suggested.
In recent days, the controversy has moved on from whether it was appropriate for Crozier to send his March 30 letter to whether it was appropriate for Modly to fire the captain without an investigation and subsequently visit the carrier to make disparaging remarks about Crozier, even as the man battles covid-19 himself.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who studies civilian-military relations, said Modly’s speech to sailors from the Theodore Roosevelt was ill-advised because of the possibility that it, like Crozier’s memo, could make its way into the public arena, and because Modly appeared to have spoken extemporaneously for at least part of the address, using profanity and denigrating Crozier.
“It was risky for him to go out there,” Feaver said. But if that was the decision, Feaver said, he would have counseled the acting secretary to “stick to your talking points.”
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The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan, Philip Rucker and Julie Tate contributed to this report.