Navy Chief Resigns After Slamming Carrier Captain

Acting Navy chief Thomas Modly resigned after profanity-laced remarks criticizing the fired captain of the coronavirus-hit USS Theodore Roosevelt.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly
U.S. President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly join Naval Academy cadets during a football game in Philadelphia on Dec. 14, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned on Tuesday, two sources familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, after the Pentagon chief ordered the Navy’s embattled top civilian to apologize for a profanity-laced speech slamming the fired captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Modly offered his resignation to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a Tuesday morning meeting first reported by Politico. In a statement posted to Twitter, Esper said Modly had “resigned on his own accord,” and briefed President Donald Trump on the move.

“The men and women of the Department of the Navy deserve a continuity of civilian leadership befitting our great Republic, and the decisive naval force that secures our way of life,” Modly said in his resignation letter to Esper.

Modly had not discussed the speech on board the Roosevelt, where he told sailors over the loudspeaker system on Monday that Capt. Brett Crozier was “too naive or too stupid” to lead the ship after warning higher ups of the Navy’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic on the nuclear-powered carrier. Any further action against Crozier will only take place after the Navy completes an investigation into the matter, Esper said.

A defense official confirmed to Foreign Policy that James McPherson will take over for Modly as acting Navy secretary in short order. McPherson, a retired one-star admiral, was confirmed by the Senate as the Army’s number two official just 15 days ago. He will become the third person to serve as the Navy’s top civilian in four months: Modly resigned after less than 150 days on the job, and his predecessor, Richard Spencer, was fired by Defense Secretary Mark Esper over his handling of the war crimes case against Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

Esper’s initial demand for Modly to apologize on Monday came through the Pentagon chief’s staff, a U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy. After Modly ramped up attacks on Monday against Crozier, the captain’s supporters, the ship’s crew, and the press, Esper’s request forced the Navy’s top civilian leader to end the day on a note of contrition with an abrupt about-face.

Modly said he stood “by every word” of his remarks earlier Monday—Navy officials said the remarks were intended to be private, though audio of the incident had leaked in the press.

Today’s resignation marks the end of a week-long saga. Crozier was removed from his post aboard the Roosevelt last week after a letter he wrote appealing for help for his infected crew was leaked. The Roosevelt is home to a large portion of the Navy’s confirmed coronavirus cases.

The acting Navy secretary’s ability to hold his ground appeared to grow untenable as President Donald Trump told reporters he would settle the dispute and amid growing calls from Democrats on Capitol Hill for the Pentagon chief to fire Modly, raising questions about his job security, capped by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi directly raising the issue on Tuesday in a statement.  

“I’m hearing good things about both people. I may just get involved,” Trump told reporters in the White House briefing room on Monday night. “I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

Less than three hours later, Modly had issued his apology, upon Esper’s orders. “Let me be clear, I do not think Capt. Brett Crozier is naive nor stupid,” Modly wrote in his statement, a near-complete reversal of comments made aboard the Roosevelt earlier in the day. Modly’s hastily written response to a New York Times opinion piece by President Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson defending Crozier was also taken down last night.  

CNN first reported the news of Esper’s direction of the apology.

Modly’s about-face marked another in a series of quick turnarounds the acting chief has been forced to make over the past week. He had originally planned to visit the USS Roosevelt, more than half of whose crew remains on board, last week after traveling to Los Angeles to meet the crew on the hospital ship USNS Mercy that is providing trauma treatment to ease the burden on local facilities overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, until Crozier’s letter leaked in the San Francisco Chronicle last week.

The tone is set by Trump. He constantly belittles people. He attacks the press. He puts blame somewhere else, said Ray Mabus, the former secretary of the navy during the Obama administration. The only people who seem to prosper in this administration are those who seem to copy that tone. I cannot imagine any other secretary of the navy under any other president doing anything remotely like this.

But Esper’s demand for Modly to apologize raised intrigue over his job status, as the Pentagon chief has clashed with the acting secretary several times since his appointment in November 2019. Esper forced former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer to resign over his handling of a war crimes investigation into Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

In particular, Esper was unwilling to sign off on Modly’s plan to grow the U.S. Navy’s fleet to 355 ships by 2030, one of Trump’s top defense priorities, Breaking Defense reported in February. The Navy then failed to submit the legally mandated 30-year shipbuilding plan, prompting a tense standoff between Esper and House lawmakers that month as the defense secretary went to Capitol Hill to defend the agency’s new budget.

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Democratic lawmakers, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, have pushed for Modly’s firing, and others have asked for the Pentagon’s inspector general to open an investigation into Navy’s decision to relieve Crozier, the Roosevelt’s captain.

Normally, Smith would be able to quickly bring out Modly and the Navy’s top military officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, for a hearing on the matter. Yet as the Democrat-led House is set to return to session in two weeks, the lower chamber is still figuring out how it will hold sessions as the coronavirus pandemic spreads throughout the nation’s capital.

“Under normal circumstances I would have said yes, but Congress hasn’t even figured out how to hold [a] hearing in this environment yet, let alone one that is not directly focused on COVID-19 response,” a House aide told Foreign Policy.

Committees in Congress have been tasked by House leadership to figure out a means for holding hearings, but “they haven’t coalesced around a specific model yet,” the aide added.

While the ability of Congress to look into the issue remains challenged by the spread of the coronavirus, the Trump administration’s shake-up of inspector general positions could also delay a federal inquiry into the issue.

Trump announced on Monday that he intended to nominate a new Pentagon inspector general, Jason Abend, on Monday. Abend would replace acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine, whom Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Ruben Gallego have asked to lead an investigation into Crozier’s ouster, and who has been tasked with oversight of the administration’s coronavirus relief spending.  

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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