An aircraft carrier sidelined by a coronavirus outbreak. A promising captain fired for requesting help as infections spread among his 5,000 sailors. And a service leaderless once more, after the acting Navy secretary resigned Tuesday following an uproar over a profanity-laced address to the ship’s crew.
The Navy has weathered its share of crises, and in the past few months saw the previous Navy secretary forced out over his handling of a war crimes case, and the man selected to be its top admiral instead retire due to an improper professional relationship with a former staffer who was accused of making unwanted sexual advances to several women.
Yet the resignation of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly leaves the service lurching in the middle of a devastating pandemic that has roiled global markets, upended everyday life and left tens of thousands dead around the world.
It also projects the wrong image to America’s enemies and allies, as a cascading series of leadership changes calls into question the stability of America’s sea service.
“There is never a good time for a crisis in leadership, but having it in the middle of a pandemic is a particularly awful time,” said Ray Mabus, who served as Navy secretary under former President Barack Obama.
Lawmakers, national security experts and Navy veterans alike disavowed Modly’s extraordinary remarks to the crew of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt on Sunday. Modly had just fired Capt. Brett Crozier for blasting an email to Navy personnel asking for aid as the carrier was forced to dock in Guam, coronavirus running rampant through the ship’s decks.
In a speech to the crew that was later leaked to the media, Modly called Crozier’s actions “naïve” and “stupid.” The decision to give the address, as well as the abrupt move to fire Crozier before uniformed Navy officials had completed an investigation into the incident, crossed a critical line, upsetting the delicate balance between civilian and military control of the service, former officials said.
“The final adjudication is with the chief of naval personnel,” said retired Vice Adm. John Miller, former commander of 5th Fleet, which oversees the Middle East. “Having Modly, who is senior to everyone in uniform in the Navy, be the relieving officer makes that whole review process more difficult.”
Others called for the speedy confirmation of a permanent replacement for the last Senate-confirmed Navy secretary, Richard Spencer. After Spencer was ousted in late November over his handling of Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher — President Donald Trump wanted the chief’s SEAL insignia restored after granting the sailor clemency — Trump nominated Kenneth Braithwaite, the former ambassador to Norway, for the job. Yet his nomination has languished in the Senate for several weeks.
After a break-neck chain of events that began when Crozier’s letter asking for help surfaced on March 31, followed by Modly’s firing, his speech to the crew and Tuesday’s departure, the Navy Department now finds itself under the temporary leadership of James McPherson, retired rear admiral who was confirmed to be the Army’s No. 2 a mere 15 days ago.
“The Department of the Navy needs to have a Senate-confirmed Secretary of the Navy — now,” said Michael Mulroy, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy until December and now works for ABC News.
After meeting with Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday morning, Modly sent a letter to his boss saying it was time to go.
“He resigned on his own accord, putting the Navy and Sailors above self so that the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward,” Esper said in a statement.
In his resignation letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, Modly thanked Esper and Trump for their “confidence” in him.
“More than anything, I owe every member of the Navy and Marine Corps team a lifetime of gratitude for the opportunity to serve for them, and with them, once again,” Modly wrote. “The men and women of the Department of the Navy deserve continuity of civilian leadership befitting our great Republic, and the decisive naval force that secures our way of life.”
Modly was more loquacious in a memo to the force, in which he acknowledged that he “lost situational awareness” during his address to Roosevelt’s crew.
“You are justified in being angry with me about that,” Modly wrote in the memo. “There is no excuse, but perhaps a glimpse of understanding, and hopefully empathy.”
“I am deeply sorry for some of the words and for how they spread across the media landscape like a wildfire,” Modly continued.
Later in the four-page memo, Modly urged sailors not to “ be afraid” to bring up issues of concern to their immediate superiors, but noted that “there is a proper, courteous and respectful way to do this.”
Just hours earlier, on Monday night, Modly apologized to the crew and its former captain,
“I want to apologize to the Navy for my recent comments to the crew of the TR,” Modly said in a statement. “Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.”
Yet the mea culpa wasn’t enough. On Monday and continuing throughout the day Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers called on Modly to resign or be fired.
Mabus criticized Modly’s remarks, noting in an interview that “the notion that a civilian leader would go on a warship and say these things about a captain who was obviously beloved and who had done this for his crew just defies imagination.”
Mabus blamed Trump for cultivating an environment in which “the only people who seem to thrive are people who either emulate or suck up to him.” He accused the president of politicizing the military and interfering with the military’s regular justice system.
“The tone comes from the top,” he said.
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A senior defense official with knowledge of the situation said that when Modly made his comments to the crew, the Naval Academy graduate and former helicopter pilot “went back to his roots as a sailor.”
“He allowed his time in uniform to color his comments,” the official said. “Having seen the level of effort that went into this, he wanted to be very direct to the crew.”
But Esper “did not care for” Modly’s comments on the carrier and instructed the acting secretary on Monday to issue an apology to the crew and to Crozier, said a second senior defense official.
After Modly offered his resignation, Esper spoke with other senior leaders in the department about naming a replacement, the second official said. Esper then went to the president to get his approval on selecting McPherson for the job.
Meanwhile, Esper’s staff was busy making calls to lawmakers to try to accelerate the Braithwaite’s confirmation for the permanent Navy secretary role, according to a former Defense official with knowledge of the conversation.
Trump on Tuesday afternoon said he had no role in Modly’s resignation and credited the former Navy leader with trying to move beyond the scandal.
“I don’t know him but I heard he’s a very good man,” Trump said of Modly. “The whole thing was very unfortunate.
“I had heard he [resigned] because he didn’t want to cause any disturbance for our country,” Trump added. “And I think in really many ways, that was a very unselfish thing for him to do.”
Trump also appeared to back down from his comments on Monday when he said he planned to get involved in the Navy’s decision to fire Crozier.
“They’re going to just take it under regular Navy channels to see what they want to do,” Trump said of Crozier’s future.
Roughly 2,000 sailors have been moved ashore and are in isolation as the Navy tests the personnel aboard the Roosevelt. More than 150 crew members have tested positive for the coronavirus.