Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly stepped down on Tuesday over a recent coronavirus-related controversy.
The top official resigned after igniting a firestorm with a speech excoriating the captain of an aircraft carrier plagued by growing numbers of COVID-19 infections, Captain Brett Crozier, whose memo asking for help was leaked to the press, The Hill reported. Modly was facing calls from Democrats to resign and apologized Monday for his harsh rhetoric.
“This morning I accepted Secretary Modly’s resignation. He resigned of his own accord, putting the Navy and the sailors above self so that the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward,” Pentagon chief Mark Esper said.
Secretary slammed captain in speech
Modly relieved Captain Crozier of his duty Thursday as controversy brewed over a memo the captain had written pleading for help with a coronavirus outbreak on his ship, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, according to the Military Times. The letter found its way to the San Francisco Chronicle and brought the plight of Crozier’s nearly 5,000-person crew to national attention.
The secretary made his displeasure known right away about Crozier having reached over the chain of command. But a leaked speech that he gave to Crozier’s sailors was more colorful; Modly slammed the captain for being “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” The Hill reported. He also intimated that Crozier may have deliberately sabotaged the Navy by leaking the memo to the media.
Those comments sparked significant outrage and led several Democrats, who took up the controversy as another example of the Trump administration punishing whistleblowers, to call for his resignation. Modly apologized Monday, under pressure from Esper, Fox News reports, for “confusion” about his remarks and praised Crozier as “smart and passionate.”
But just a day later, Modly was out following talks with Esper, sources told Fox. Esper said in a letter Tuesday that Modly was stepping down of his own volition and would be replaced with Undersecretary of the Army James McPherson — with Trump’s approval — and that Esper had briefed the president on the matter.
“Secretary Modly served the nation for many years, both in and out of uniform. I have the deepest 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 wrote.
Trump: Modly shouldn’t have quit
For his part, President Trump has also been critical of Crozier, comparing him sarcastically to Ernest Hemingway and expressing regret that he wrote the letter. Trump reiterated Monday that Crozier’s letter showed “weakness” and that he should not have written it, but he added that he did not want to see a career ruined over one mistake and intimated that he might intervene, according to Fox News.
“I’m going to get involved and see exactly what’s going on there,” Trump said. “Because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.
In the letter, Crozier requested help with offloading the majority of the ship’s crew. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier wrote. “If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
Footage of Crozier stepping off the ship for the last time, with his sailors cheering him on, went viral last week. Incidentally, Modly was also a sailor on the ship decades ago, Fox News reported. Reacting to Modly’s resignation, Trump said that he didn’t think the step was necessary but thanked him for what he called a selfless action.
“I had heard he did because he didn’t want to cause any disturbance for our country. He wouldn’t have had to resign. I would not have asked him. I don’t know him. I didn’t speak to him. But he did that, I think, just to end that problem. And I think in many ways that was a very unselfish thing to do,” Trump said.