Navy Secretary Modly Resigns After Carrier Remarks; Esper Names Replacement

April 7, 2020 Updated: April 7, 2020

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said April 7 that he’s accepted the resignation of acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly and has nominated Army Undersecretary James McPherson to be Modly’s replacement.

“This morning I accepted Secretary Modly’s resignation. He resigned on his own accord, putting the Navy and the Sailors above self so that the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy, as an institution, can move forward,” Esper said in a statement, which was carried on Twitter.

“I briefed President Trump after my conversation with Secretary Modly. With the approval of the President, I am appointing current Army Undersecretary Jim McPherson as acting Secretary of the Navy.

Modly offered his resignation April 7 after apologizing for “any pain” caused by a speech that followed his firing of the commander of the virus-hit aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt that some interpreted as him calling the captain “naive” and “stupid.”

The apology from Modly came after President Donald Trump hinted he may intervene, saying if he could “help two good people,” he would.

Several days earlier, Modly had fired Capt. Brett Crozier as the commander of the aircraft carrier over a four-page memo on March 30 by Crozier that outlined the threat from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak onboard the carrier.

In addition to concerns over breaking the chain of command, chief among Modly’s criticisms was the fact that Crozier’s memo, which implied sailors would die without evacuation, was leaked to the press.

Modly then flew out to the virus-hit carrier in Guam and gave a speech over the ship’s loudspeaker system to the 5,000 sailors, who had given Crozier a rousing hero’s send-off. Modly’s speech, however, was recorded and then also leaked to the media.

While Modly had previously said he stood by every single word of the speech, in a statement on April 6, he offered an apology for his specific word choice, but stopped short of backtracking on his broader criticisms.

Captain-Brett-Crozier
Capt. Brett Crozier addresses the crew for the first time as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during a change of command ceremony on the ship’s flight deck in San Diego, on Nov. 1, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Lynch/Handout via Reuters)

“Let me be clear: I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naive or stupid,” Modly said. “I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.

“I believe, precisely because he is not naive or stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it to the public domain in an attempt to draw public attention to the situation on his ship.

“I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused,” he said in a statement carried by many media. “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.”

The USS Theodore Roosevelt is currently out of action in a port in Guam, while its crew is systematically evacuated and quarantined after an outbreak of the CCP virus onboard.

USS Theodore Roosevelt
The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) is seen while entering the port in Da Nang, Vietnam, on March 5, 2020.(Kham/File Photo/Reuters)

Crozier will be reassigned, Modly said in an earlier statement.

“He’s not thrown out of the Navy.”

Asked about the issue during his daily briefing on April 6, Trump reiterated his previous position that the captain shouldn’t have sent the letter, but this time, hinted that there could be some wiggle-room over his position.

‘If I Can Help Two Good People’

Also describing Modly has a “highly respected man,” Trump said: “I may get involved.  If I can help two people, two good people, I’m going to help them.”

“I’m not looking to destroy a person’s life who has had an otherwise stellar career,” he said, in reference to Crozier.

“People are asking, ‘why is the president getting involved?’ I like to solve problems. It’s a problem.”

The section of Modly’s speech that appears to have sparked the most anger, with the “naive” and “stupid” references reads: “It was my opinion, that if he didn’t think that information was going to get out into the public, in this information age that we live in, then he was too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this.

“The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that’s a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which you are all familiar with.”

The plight of the Theodore Roosevelt hit the headlines when the March 30 memo from Crozier was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he said that the COVID-19 outbreak was “ongoing and accelerating.”

“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier said in the memo, in which he implied that sailors would die unless the crew was taken off and the ship disinfected.

The Navy later announced that they were already taking measures to evacuate the carrier—and that Crozier had been fired.

Modly said in an initial statement that the letter, which was sent via non-secure unclassified email outside of the chain of command, had “raised alarm bells unnecessarily,” and “created the impression that the Navy was not responding to his questions.”

Esper on April 5 said that he backed Modly’s decision.

“I have full faith and confidence in him and the Navy leadership, and I support their decision,” Esper told ABC News. “This is a chain-of-command issue. It’s an issue of trust and confidence in the captain of the ship.”

Investigators are currently evaluating whether Crozier should face disciplinary action, Reuters reported.

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