Acting Navy secretary resigns amid outcry over handling of coronavirus outbreak on ship

Modly's resignation is latest twist in a bungled Navy response to coronavirus on USS Theodore Roosevelt

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in December. (Getty Images)
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in December. (Getty Images)
Posted April 7, 2020 at 5:58pm

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced late Tuesday that he had accepted earlier in the day the resignation of Thomas Modly, the acting Navy secretary, amid a growing chorus of Democratic calls for just that outcome.

Esper said he has chosen, with President Donald Trump’s assent, to install Army Undersecretary James McPherson, a retired admiral, to replace Modly as the Navy’s interim civilian leader.

Esper’s statement did not explain why Modly offered his resignation. It is the latest twist in a bungled Navy response to a medical crisis on a U.S. warship.

Modly has been ensnared in a public-relations imbroglio for a week, as his successive attempts to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier have blown up in his face.

Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he supports Modly’s decision.

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

Earlier Tuesday, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., in a call with reporters, reiterated his Monday call for Modly to resign. A bevy of Democrats echoed Smith.

By contrast, Republican calls for Modly to leave were nowhere to be found, though a few questioned his handling of the case.

On Tuesday, though, after Esper announced his decision, James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he supported the choice.

“However," Inhofe said, "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.”

Rob Wittman, R-Va., also said in a statement Tuesday that he supports Esper’s decision.

“I believe that this move is critical to making our @USNavy whole again and getting back on track to address this unique readiness situation during these challenging times,” Wittman tweeted.

Wicked week

Modly is a former Navy helicopter pilot who served civilian jobs in the defense industry and the Pentagon deputy undersecretary for financial management, among other positions. He holds an undergraduate degree from the Naval Academy and masters degrees from Harvard Business School and Georgetown University.

As Navy undersecretary from December 2017 until last November, he specialized in arcane subjects such as financial audits and cybersecurity protocols.

Modly had replaced Richard Spencer as the Navy's top civilian.

Spencer was fired after clashing with Trump over the president's intercession in Navy criminal justice cases.

But Modly’s tenure as acting secretary began to come undone one week ago.

On March 31, the San Francisco Chronicle published a memo written the previous day by Capt. Brett Crozier, the Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer. In the missive, Crozier pleaded for his Navy superiors to quickly evacuate most of the ship’s crew due to a growing outbreak of the coronavirus.

“Sailors do not have to die,” Crozier wrote.

The next day, at a Pentagon conference, Modly and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday seemed to support Crozier’s having sounded the alarm.

“The fact that he wrote the letter up to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation,” Modly told reporters. “This is what we want our commanding officers to be able to do.”

But Modly was apparently not happy Crozier emailed his memo to at least 20 people, not including his immediate superior officer. And the publication of the memo in the press sparked fierce criticism of Navy leaders for not moving quickly enough to remove sailors from the ship, which is at a pier in Guam, to facilities ashore.

Then, on Thursday, Modly held another press conference to announce he had relieved Crozier of command of the ship.

The next day, videos surfaced of sailors on the ship cheering Crozier as he departed, triggering widespread sympathy for the captain.

Last weekend, Modly told a Washington Post columnist that he had relieved Crozier of his command because, in essence, he wanted to do it before the president did.

Ill-starred speech

Modly flew to the carrier Sunday and delivered a speech on the public address system in which he said Crozier was either “stupid” or “naive,” on the one hand or, on the other, knew what he was doing in seeking to influence his superiors by going outside the chain of command.

Modly also criticized the press as seeking to “divide” and “embarrass” the Navy.

Later, Modly said he stood by the remarks. Then, Trump, at a press conference, indicated some sympathy for Crozier and said he would take a look at the conflict between the captain and Modly.

“I’m going to get involved and see exactly what’s going on there, because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day,” Trump said.

After that, Modly issued a statement apologizing for his choice of words in his remarks on the carrier.

The die had already been cast as every attempt to smooth over the turmoil seemed to backfire.

Modly said Crozier had allowed the crisis "to overwhelm his ability to act professionally.” But ultimately it seemed Modly had fallen victim to the same flaw.

More than half the Roosevelt crew has been tested for COVID-19 and at least 230 tested positive as of Tuesday morning, according to CNN.