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Modly Resigns As Acting Navy Chief After Firing Warship Skipper And Calling Him Stupid

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies before a Senate hearing in December 2019.
Joshua Roberts
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies before a Senate hearing in December 2019.

Updated at 6:55 p.m. ET

Five days after firing the commander of a coronavirus-crippled U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and a day after apologizing for calling that skipper naive and stupid in heated remarks to that warship's crew, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly has called it quits. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has accepted his resignation.

Modly resigned amid public outrage over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt and growing demands from congressional Democrats for his removal.

Esper said Modly submitted his resignation "on his own accord, putting the Navy and the Sailors above self so that the U.S.S. Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward." Esper said he is appointing Army Undersecretary Jim McPherson as acting Navy secretary to succeed Modly.

McPherson had served only just under two weeks as the Army's No. 2 civilian. "He is a smart, capable, and professional leader," Esper wrote in a statement, "who will restore confidence and stability in the Navy during these challenging times."

Modly's departure as the Navy's top civilian official comes two weeks after the drama of the Roosevelt began, when the warship confirmed its first three cases of COVID-19 among more than 5,800 crew members after making port calls in Vietnam.

An impassioned memo emailed to superior officials and dated March 30 from the carrier's commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, described an "accelerating" crisis aboard and pleaded for swift removal of its crew to adequate quarantine housing in Guam, where the warship is currently docked.

Publication of the leaked memo on March 31 by the San Francisco Chronicle sparked a furor over whether Crozier had intentionally exposed the weakened condition of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

On Thursday, Modly sacked Crozier, a decision he called his own. He then paid a surprise visit to the Roosevelt on Monday morning local time, where he addressed the crew over the ship's loudspeakers, sprinkling his remarks with obscenities and accusing Crozier of betrayal.

Modly also accused Crozier in his speech of being "either too naive or too stupid" to skipper the aircraft carrier if he believed his memo would not be leaked to the news media.

On Monday evening, after a storm of criticism for those comments, Modly issued a statement saying he wanted to apologize to Crozier, his family and the Roosevelt's crew "for any pain my remarks may have caused."

Modly was appointed acting Navy secretary in November 2019 after Richard Spencer was forced out as the Navy's top civilian in a dispute over President Trump's support for Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who had been accused of war crimes.

News of Modly's departure after just five months at the helm of the Navy came at the same hour that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demandedhis resignation or removal, saying he had shown "a serious lack of the sound judgment and strong leadership needed during this time."

In a conference call with reporters before news of the resignation, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said Modly's initial reaction to the Crozier case suggested he was trying to please President Trump. But Smith said Modly mishandled the case. Smith went on to say Trump was damaging government and military decision-making by seeking loyalty over competence in filling top jobs throughout his administration.

"I see the creeping influence of Trump's approach undermining the decision-making process at DoD," Smith said.

In an op-ed column in The Washington Post, Modly is described as having wanted to spare Trump from having to fire Crozier.

"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 is quoting as telling the Post's David Ignatius.

Trump has gone from supporting Crozier's removal at a news conference on Saturday — "I thought it was terrible what he did, to write a letter" — to suggesting on Monday that Modly may have overreacted.

"His career prior to that was very good," Trump saidof Crozier. "I don't want to destroy somebody for having a bad day."

On Tuesday, Trump told reporters during a White House news conference that he had no role in Modly's resignation. "I didn't know him, I didn't speak to him," Trump said, while calling the move "unselfish."

Congressional Republicans have remained largely silent about Modly's handling of the Roosevelt crisis.

Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement saying he agreed with Esper's acceptance of Modly's resignation.

"It is my understanding that Acting Secretary Modly removed Captain Crozier against the advice of senior Navy uniformed leadership and without completion of a proper investigation," Reed, D-R.I., said.

"I have already asked the Secretary of Defense and the Inspector General's office of the Department of Defense for a thorough review that includes an assessment of the actions of Navy leadership, both civilian and military, and what role, if any, the White House played in this matter."

The fate of Crozier remains uncertain. He is reported by The New York Times to be housed in "distinguished visitors quarters" at Naval Base Guam after testing positive for the coronavirus.

An official Navy investigation of Crozier's handling of the coronavirus outbreak on the Roosevelt and his efforts to draw attention to the ship's plight was to have concluded Monday. But according to a statement to USNI News from the Navy, it will be several more days before that report comes out.

"Any further action regarding the former commanding officer, Captain Crozier," Esper wrote in his announcement of Modly's resignation, "will wait until that investigation is completed."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.