Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned Tuesday, just one day after audio leaked of the embattled chief accusing the fired commander of the coronavirus-hit USS Theodore Roosevelt “too naive or too stupid” to lead an aircraft carrier.
The move was the latest turn in a head-spinning five days for the Navy, which has seen the saga of the nuclear-powered Roosevelt become a symbol of the Pentagon’s challenges facing the fallout from the global pandemic. And it marks another blow to morale at the Navy itself, which is seeing its second top civilian leader forced out in the space of six months in the midst of a divisive political scandal.
Mr. Modly decided to step down after getting mixed signals on his fate from the White House, as well as a barrage of criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats on Capitol Hill and from some former Navy officials for handling of the Roosevelt furor.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper confirmed Mr. Modly’s resignation and said in a statement he accepted the decision that “was made on his own accord.”
“His care for the soldiers was genuine,” Mr. Esper said in a statement. “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.”
Mr. Modly, who served as acting secretary since the forced resignation of predecessor Richard Spencer, will be replaced by the just-named Army Undersecretary James E. McPherson, Mr. Esper added, “with the approval of the president.”
Mr. McPherson, a retired Navy lawyer, was sworn into his role as undersecretary just two weeks ago, and had most recently served as the Army’s general counsel since January 2018.
After Mr. Spencer was forced to step aside, President Trump last year tapped U.S. Ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite to lead the Navy, but his nomination appears to be stalled.
The retired admiral and former naval aviator was supposed to step in quickly for Mr. Spencer, who was caught up in an angry and public clash with Mr. Trump fired over top Navy officials’ handling of the case of a Navy SEAL who was accused of war crimes and pardoned by the president.
Calls have been growing for Mr. Modly to step down after he made the decision Thursday to fire Capt. Brett E. Crozier, who warned in a memo quickly leaked to the news media last week of a potential catastrophe aboard his aircraft carrier — now docked in Guam — after 155 of the 4,865 crew members had tested positive for coronavirus.
Capt. Crozier, who reportedly has tested positive for the virus himself, pointedly suggested his Navy superiors did not appreciate the severity of the health crisis on his ship and “more decisive action” was needed to get the sailors quarantined and treated.
In a shipwide address to the 4,000 crewmembers of the Roosevelt in Guam — also quickly leaked to the press — Mr. Modly on Monday bluntly accused Capt. Crozier of personal betrayal and causing controversy in Washington with a memo he knew or should have known would quickly become public.
“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either too naive or too stupid to be commanding officer of a ship like this,” Mr. Modly told the Roosevelt sailors, according to a transcript and recording of his message over the ship’s public address system. “The alternative is that he did this on purpose.”
Under pressure from his Pentagon superiors, Mr. Modly later apologized for his language and said in a statement Monday evening, “Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naive nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.”
He went on, “I believe, precisely because he is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship. I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.”
Mr. Trump did not ease the Pentagon’s plight by sending some mixed signals of his own.
On Saturday, he sharply criticized Capt. Crozier’s impassioned memo and said he agreed with the decision to relieve him of his command “100%.”
“This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear-powered,” Mr. Trump remarked, “and he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter.”
But as the controversy continued to grow over the weekend, the president sounded a different note, telling reporters Monday, “I may look into it only from the standpoint that something should be resolved because I’m hearing good things about both” Mr. Modly and Capt. Crozier.
Mr. Modly’s attempt to walk back his harsh comments did not appease his critics on Capitol Hill.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement called Mr. Modly’s words “troubling” and “inappropriate for the leader of the U.S. Navy at any time, particularly in a crisis, and did a disservice to Captain Crozier, the sailors of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and all Navy personnel.”
Mr. Reed called on Mr. Esper and the Pentagon’s inspector general to carry out 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.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, told reporters Tuesday that while he has “incredible respect” for Mr. Modly, “What on earth possessed the acting secretary to think that speech was a good idea?”
Mr. Smith said he spoke to Mr. Modly “immediately after” his decision to dismiss Capt. Crozier, and said that the captain’s actions did not warrant such a dismissal.
“It is now imperative that the Trump administration identify a qualified Acting Secretary replacement who has demonstrated the strong, steady leadership that is required in a crisis,” Mr. Smith added, while notably leaving out the name of the current nominee, Mr. Braithwaite.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, vowed to consider the nomination of the next secretary of the Navy “quickly” once the Senate is back in session, and called on his panel to “expedite” the nomination process.
“It’s disturbing to me that there’s been so much turmoil at the top of the Department of the Navy over the last year,” he said. “In this difficult time, the Navy needs leaders now more than ever who can provide continuity and steady, insightful leadership.”
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