Modly Resigns as Acting SecNav Amid Backlash Over Carrier Captain's Firing

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Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly speaks at a Pentagon press briefin.
Then Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly speaks at a Pentagon press briefing, Washington, D.C., April 2, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Thomas Modly, who has served as the acting Navy secretary since his predecessor was forced out amid controversy, has stepped down, the defense secretary said on Tuesday.

Modly submitted his resignation letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday. The decision followed a weeklong firestorm of events after Modly relieved an aircraft carrier commanding officer who warned superiors of a deteriorating health crisis on his ship.

"This morning I accepted Secretary Modly's resignation," Esper said. "He resigned on his own accord, putting the Navy and Sailors above self so that the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution can move forward."

Navy officials told Military.com they were "left in the dark" over the top-level personnel moves. Esper said that he had briefed the president on the situation.

Army Undersecretary James McPherson, a prior-enlisted soldier and retired Navy lawyer, will take over as acting Navy secretary. He will fill a vacancy that has existed since former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer resigned amid controversy following the handling of former SEAL Eddie Gallagher's case.

That's despite President Donald Trump saying he'll nominate former Navy rear admiral and U.S. Ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite to be the service's next top civilian leader.

McPherson was sworn in as the Army undersecretary on March 26, according to an Army news release, after being confirmed to serve in that role by the Senate. McPherson retired from the Navy as a vice admiral in 2006.

Esper described him as smart, professional, and a capable leader who "will restore confidence and stability in the Navy."

Modly was ordered by Esper on Monday to apologize for language he used during a recent speech on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

Related: Acting SecNav's Public Apology Was Ordered by Defense Secretary Mark Esper

He had addressed the crew after removing their commanding officer from his job days prior. The commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, had written a letter to Navy leaders pleading for them to evacuate his ship as novel coronavirus cases spread among the crew. The letter was sent to people outside the chain of command on an unclassified network and ended up being published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Modly said Crozier's actions suggest the captain was "too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this."

When media outlets, including Military.com, obtained recordings of that speech, Modly faced swift backlash from lawmakers. Several had called for him to resign or be removed from his post, including Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and several veterans serving in Congress.

Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that the speech on the carrier Roosevelt was uncharacteristic of Modly, a Naval Academy graduate who served as a Navy UH-1N pilot and professor at the Air Force Academy.

"It's almost like he was doing a half-assed imitation of how Donald Trump would make a speech," Smith said during a conference call with reporters.

Smith added that he's concerned defense officials with good intentions alter their behavior in misguided efforts to curry favor with Trump.

"I'm sympathetic to Secretary Esper and Secretary Modly," Smith said, adding "I think very highly of them."

Trump on Monday indicated he was considering getting involved in Crozier's case to prevent his career from being ruined by one bad day.

Following Modly's resignation Tuesday, Trump said that he was not involved with the departure.

"I had no role in it," Trump said at a White House news conference, adding that he had never spoken with Modly on any issue. "I don't know him, I didn't speak to him."

He said Crozier "made a mistake" in writing a letter to superiors on the spread of coronavirus aboard the ship that leaked to the media, but Modly also "shouldn't have said quite what he said" about Crozier.

Modly, who had served as the Navy's undersecretary since 2017, led efforts to improve innovation within the department, developed new education policies for Marines and sailors, and oversaw an updated ship-count strategy, which has not yet been finalized.

At Esper's direction on Monday, Modly apologized for his comments about Crozier.

"Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid," he said. "... I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused. 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."

Modly also drew backlash for comments he made about the press while aboard the Roosevelt, telling sailors Crozier's actions led to media reports about a "martyr CO."

"There is ... no situation where you go to the media," he said. "... The agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit, and I'm sorry that's the way the country is now, but it's the truth and so they use it to divide us and use it to embarrass the Navy. They use it to embarrass you."

Esper said on Tuesday that he met with McPherson, Modly's replacement, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday to discuss getting the Roosevelt, which has been sidelined in Guam as coronavirus cases spread, back to sea.

"We must now put the needs of the Navy, including the crew of the Teddy Roosevelt, first, and we must all move forward together," the defense secretary said.

-- Richard Sisk and Matthew Cox contributed to this report.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Read More: President Trump Says He Might Intervene in Fired Navy Captain's Case

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