Updated Apr 7, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Acting Navy secretary resigns over handling of virus-infected ship

Thomas Modly. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned Tuesday after apologizing for comments he made about Capt. Brett Crozier, who was removed when a letter he wrote pleading with the Navy to address the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt was leaked to the press. The resignation was first reported by Politico.

Why it matters: The controversy over Crozier's removal was exacerbated after audio leaked of Modly's address to the crew, in which he said Crozier was either "too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this." After initially backing Modly's decision, President Trump said at a briefing Monday that he would "get involved."

Timeline:

  • March 30: In a letter to senior Navy officials, Crozier says that with "inherent limitations of space" on the aircraft carrier, it's nearly impossible to social distance with a crew of more 4,000 and follow quarantine guidelines to stay docked for 14 days.
  • March 31: The San Francisco Chronicle publishes the letter. Modly tells CNN that the Navy is working to evacuate the ship.
  • April 2: Modly announces in a press conference that Crozier has been relieved for acting outside his chain of command and "unnecessarily" raising alarm with the family members of the crew.
  • April 4: Trump backs Modly's decision to remove Crozier, saying at a press conference: "I thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered."
  • April 5: Crozier himself tests positive for the coronavirus.
  • April 6: Modly flies to Guam and speaks to the crew of the ship over the loudspeaker, calling Crozier's letter a "betrayal of trust." The audio of the speech is leaked. Modly issues a statement saying, “I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably, some profanity that may have been used for emphasis.” He later apologizes under pressure from Defense Department leadership.
  • April 7: Amid calls for his removal, Modly offers to resign.

What they're saying: Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a statement Tuesday affirming that he had accepted Modly's resignation and appointed Undersecretary of the Army James McPherson as his replacement.

"[Modly] 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. His care for the Sailors was genuine. Secretary Modly served the nation for many years, both in and out of uniform. I have the deepest respect for anyone who serves our country, and who places the greater good above all else. Secretary Modly did that today, and I wish him all the best."
— Mark Esper

Just before resigning, Modley apologized to the Department of the Navy in an internal memo obtained by Task & Purpose, writing: "I brought incoming fire onto our team and I am convinced that the fire will continue unrelentingly until the target is gone."

  • "The crew deserved a lot more empathy and a lot less lecturing," he continued. "I lost sight of that at the time and I am deeply sorry for some of the words and for how they were spread across the media landscape like a wildfire."
  • "I had hoped to transmit a message of love, and duty, and mission, and courage in the face of adversity. Those words are in there, but they are now lost, because of me, and I will regret that for the rest of my life."

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