UPDATED: Modly Resigns Amidst Carrier Roosevelt Controversy; Army Undersecretary to Serve as Acting SECNAV

April 7, 2020 4:05 PM - Updated: April 28, 2020 11:24 AM
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly speaks to Sailors aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) from across the brow via the ship’s 1-MC public address system, March 31, 2020. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated to include Thomas Modly’s resignation letter and reactions from members of Congress.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly has resigned from his post after a day and a half of widespread criticism surrounding the removal of the commander of an aircxraft carrier that is battling a COVID-19 outbreak, according to a copy of the resignation letter obtained by USNI News.
“More than anything, I owe every member of the Navy and Marine Corps team a lifetime of gratitude for the opportunity to serve for them, and with them, once again. They are the reason why I will forever remain inspired by the call of service. They are the ones who lift our nation, heal our divides, and make this country the greatest in the history of the world,” Modly wrote in the letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
“That is why with a heavy heart, I hereby submit my resignation, effective immediately. 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. I will be forever grateful for my opportunity, and the blessing, to be part of it.”

In a Tuesday statement, Esper said he would appoint the Army’s current number two civilian as the acting SECNAV.

James E. McPherson. US Army Photo

“I am appointing current Army Undersecretary Jim McPherson as acting Secretary of the Navy. Jim is a retired Admiral with a distinguished 26-year naval career, serving ashore, afloat, and overseas during his time in uniform. I know Jim McPherson well,” Esper wrote.
“He is a smart, capable, and professional leader who will restore confidence and stability in the Navy during these challenging times. Jim will serve as acting Secretary of the Navy until a permanent Navy Secretary is confirmed.”

Modly offered his resignation to Esper a day after he made a speech to sailors aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) in which he criticized the carrier’s former commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier. While addressing the sailors, Modly said an alarming letter Crozier sent potentially broke the law and was designed to be leaked to the press.

Crozier’s letter stated sailors were at risk of succumbing to the virus unless the service stepped up testing and isolation procedures on Guam.

“If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our sailors,” he wrote in the letter that was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle. Crozier was removed from his command on April 2 on orders from Modly for “extremely poor judgment.”

On Monday, Modly traveled to the carrier and spoke to the sailors aboard and was critical of Crozier. Modly said if Crozier thought the information wasn’t going to go public in the way he sent it, he was “too naïve or stupid” to command the carrier.

Following a leaked recording of the speech and backlash from Congress and the public, Modly submitted a hasty apology late Wednesday.

“I want to apologize to the Navy for my recent comments to the crew of the TR. Let me be clear, I do not think Capt. Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite. We pick our carrier commanding officers with great care,” the statement read. “Capt. Crozier is smart and passionate. I believe, precisely because he is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship. I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.”

Reaction to Modly’s resignation from Capitol Hill was swift, with members issuing statements supporting the move and some calling for a review of the actions leading up to the resignation.

“Acting Secretary Modly submitting his formal resignation to Secretary Esper was the right thing to do. After mismanaging the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, it became obvious that Acting Secretary Modly had forfeited his ability to lead the Navy. His actions had become a distraction at a time when we need the Navy to be focused on preserving the safety of our Sailors and maintaining the readiness of our fleet,” said a statement from Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Sen. James Inhofe, (R-Okla.) the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement expressing his concern over what has become a months-long process to firm-up the leadership of the Navy and Marine Corps. The nomination of retired Navy Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite secretary of the Navy has been pending since February.

“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. In this difficult time, the Navy needs leaders now more than ever who can provide continuity and steady, insightful leadership,” Inhofe wrote.
“Once the Senate is back in session, I will make sure the Armed Services Committee considers the nomination of the next Secretary of the Navy quickly, and I ask my fellow committee members to help me expedite this nomination as well.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, (D-Conn.) issued a statement saying Modly’s decision to resign, “was a necessary step to restore the confidence of every sailor and member of the US Navy that its leadership is committed to their wellbeing,” he said.
“Mr. Modly did the right thing in stepping aside. Hopefully it will allow the Navy to focus on caring for the crew and their families, as well as for a fresh review of the Captain Crozier’s punishment, which simple fairness demands.”

Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly speaks to Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard officers during the National Naval Officers Association (NNOA) symposium on Aug. 7, 2019. US Navy Photo

Rep. Rob Wittman, (R-Va.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, issued a statement accepting the reasoning behind Modly’s resignation.

“After acting Secretary Modly’s recent actions, I support Secretary Esper’s decision to accept his resignation. I believe that this move is critical to making our Navy whole again and getting back on track to address this unique readiness situation during these challenging times,” Wittman wrote. “Going forward, I will work with the Department of Defense, in my oversight role, to ensure that every possible step is being taken to safeguard the health of our service members, provide our commanders the resources they need, and maintain our military presence around the globe.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), the HASC ranking member, issued a statement that avoided delving into the controversy surrounding Modly’s resignation, instead opting to focus on the work of service members responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All of our service members, including our sailors, deserve to be able to do their best on the tasks assigned to them without unnecessary distractions. The change in the office of the Secretary of the Navy should allow the country to put this episode behind us and allow sailors to focus on the very important missions at hand,” said the statement from Thornberry.

Earlier in the day, during a lunch-time media conference, Smith said Modly lost his ability to effectively lead the service once he made his speech aboard Theodore Roosevelt denigrating the ship’s former commanding officer.

Speaking before it was known Modly had resigned, Smith said he couldn’t see a way for Modly to continue as acting secretary after giving the speech.

“Having made that decision I think Acting Secretary Modly is going to have a heck of a time getting the confidence of the Navy back having made that speech,” Smith said during lunchtime Tuesday.

Smith said he wished the decision to relieve Crozier of command had been handled better, with more consideration for the circumstances and what Smith said was predictable blow-back from the public and Navy community.

“What on earth possessed the acting secretary to think that that speech was a good idea,” Smith said.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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