Navy boss resigns amid uproar over firing of ship captain

National News

FILE – In this Dec. 3, 2019, file photo, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee about about ongoing reports of substandard housing conditions in Washington, on Capitol Hill. Modly says the captain of the COVID-stricken aircraft carrier who was fired last week had betrayed his service and may have been “too naive or too stupid” to be commanding officer of the ship. Officials are confirming that Modly made the comments Sunday, April 5, 2020, to the ship’s crew in Guam. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned Tuesday, bringing to a climax an extraordinary drama that he advanced by delivering a profanity-laced upbraiding of the officer he fired as captain of the coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt.

In announcing the resignation, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Modly quit on his own accord, “putting the Navy and the sailors above self,” so the Navy and the Roosevelt can move forward. The Roosevelt is sidelined in port at Guam as members of the crew are tested for the coronavirus and moved ashore.

“His care for the sailors was genuine,” Esper said.

Esper said he briefed President Donald Trump on his conversation with Modly, and with the president’s approval he is appointing James McPherson as acting Navy secretary. McPherson, a Navy veteran, is currently serving as undersecretary of the Army. He was confirmed in that position by the Senate last month.

Esper called McPherson a “smart, capable and professional leader who will restore confidence and stability in the Navy during these challenging times.”

Esper said he also met with Navy leaders and emphasized three priorities, including putting the health, safety and welfare of the Roosevelt crew first, and working to get the ship back out to sea as soon as safely possible.

Modly had created a combustible controversy by firing the Roosevelt’s skipper, Capt. Brett E. Crozier, last week, saying Crozier had shown “extremely poor judgment” in widely distributing by email a letter calling for urgent help with the COVID-19 outbreak aboard his ship.

Modly then flew to the ship, at port in Guam, and delivered a speech to the crew Sunday in which he lambasted Crozier, saying he was either “too naive or too stupid” to be in charge of an aircraft carrier.

According to a senior defense official, Esper spoke to Modly Monday evening, directing him to apologize for his remarks about Crozier and setting a phone meeting for Tuesday morning. The official said Esper did not request or demand Modly’s resignation, but instead discussed the situation and the way forward. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2019, file photo, U.S.Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew during an all hands call on the ship’s flight deck while conducting routine training in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet visited the leadership of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam, where the aircraft carrier is being cleaned after an outbreak of COVID-19 among its crew. The ship’s commander, Capt. Crozier, was fired for going outside of the chain of command in asking for help for the outbreak, in a decision now under review. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier via AP)

Modly came to his own conclusion and offered his resignation. Modly’s options were few. Officials said it would have been difficult for him to rebuild his relationship with sailors in the fleet, and equally hard to restore his reputation among senior military leaders and retired naval officers who believed his sharp remarks on the Roosevelt crossed a line.

Asked about the resignation, Trump said Tuesday that he didn’t know him or speak to him but credited Modly for resigning “to end that problem.” It was, he said, an “unselfish thing to do.”

By the time Modly issued his public apology Monday night, the calls among Democrats in Congress for his resignation were mounting. On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Modly must go.

“Sadly, Acting Secretary Modly’s actions and words demonstrate his failure to prioritize the force protection of our troops,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a written statement. “He showed a serious lack of the sound judgment and strong leadership needed during this time. Acting Secretary Modly must be removed from his position or resign.”

Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Modly had fired Crozier against the advice of Navy military leaders.

“The new leadership of the Navy must do better in leading and protecting sailors, Marines and their families in this unprecedented crisis,” Reed said.

As of Tuesday, the Navy said 79% of the Roosevelt crew had been tested for the coronavirus, and 230 of them were positive. About 2,000 of the 4,865 crew members had been taken off the ship.

The episode began when the Roosevelt reported its first COVID-19 case among the crew on March 22, two weeks after making a port visit in Vietnam. The outbreak has sidelined the warship indefinitely and created conflict at the highest levels of the Pentagon.

Esper had publicly expressed his support for Modly’s decision to fire Crozier, but after Modly’s speech aboard the ship, Esper grew unsettled. Just hours after Modly issued a statement Monday defending his words, Esper compelled Modly to reverse course and issue a public apology.

“I want to apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused,” he wrote, referring to his speech aboard the Roosevelt. “I also want to apologize directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused.”

Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday that he might get involved, agreeing that Modly’s criticism of Crozier was “a rough statement.” He said Crozier made a mistake when he sent a memo to several people laying out his concerns about the crew and the virus. In the memo, which was leaked to the media, Crozier said: “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”

CORRECTS YEAR TO 2019, NOT 2029 – In this Nov. 15, 2019, photo U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck while conducting routine operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. U.S. defense leaders are backing the Navy’s decision to fire the ship captain who sought help for his coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier, even as videos showed his sailors cheering him as he walked off the vessel. Videos went viral on social media Friday, April 3, 2020, showing hundreds of sailors gathered on the ship chanting and applauding Navy Capt. Brett Crozier as he walked down the ramp, turned, saluted, waved and got into a waiting car. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh via AP)

Trump said Crozier had a good career prior to this incident, adding, “I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

Modly, in his apology, reframed his earlier remarks that Crozier was “too naive or too stupid” to command. Instead, he said he believes Crozier is “smart and passionate.”

“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,” Modly wrote.

Aboard the ship, Modly had urged the crew to stop complaining.

“It is the mission of the ship that matters,” he said. “You all know this, but in my view your Captain lost sight of this and he compromised critical information about your status intentionally to draw greater attention to your situation.”

Modly, a 1983 Naval Academy graduate, became the acting Navy secretary last November after Richard Spencer was ousted from the position. Trump last month nominated retired Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite, the current ambassador to Norway, to be the next Navy secretary.

“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,” Modly wrote.

Aboard the ship, Modly had urged the crew to stop complaining.

“It is the mission of the ship that matters,” he said. “You all know this, but in my view your Captain lost sight of this and he compromised critical information about your status intentionally to draw greater attention to your situation.”

Modly, a 1983 Naval Academy graduate, became the acting Navy secretary last November after Richard Spencer was ousted from the position. Trump last month nominated retired Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite, the current ambassador to Norway, to be the next Navy secretary.

In his remarks aboard the Roosevelt, Modly raised issues likely to please Trump. He accused the news media, for example, of manipulating a political agenda to divide the country and embarrass the Navy. He said China “was not forthcoming” about the coronavirus when it began spreading there months ago, echoing Trump’s oft-repeated statement that China could have done more to prevent a pandemic.

And Modly invoked the name of Trump’s chief Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, noting that the former vice president had said Modly’s decision to fire Crozier was almost criminal. “I assure you it was not,” Modly said.

Modly said Crozier should have known his letter voicing urgent concerns about the virus aboard his ship would leak to the media. He said if Crozier didn’t think this would be the result, he was “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.”

He also accused Crozier of betraying his duty as an officer. “And I can tell you one other thing, because he did that he put it in the public’s forum and it’s now become a big controversy in Washington D.C., and across the country,” Modly said.

After an unofficial transcript of Modly’s remarks and an audio recording circulated widely on the internet Monday, Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and Navy veteran, called for Modly to be fired.

Luria said Modly’s comments show he is “in no way fit” to lead the Navy. Luria’s district includes Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.

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