“Secretary Modly did this today and I wish him all the best,” said Esper.
The decision is made after Modly traveled from Washington to Guam on Monday to deliver a speech to the 5,000-strong crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt, whose commander, Captain Brett Crozier, dropped Modly last week.
In mundane remarks over a loudspeaker, Modly attacked Crozier’s character, accusing him of either sending a letter to the news media about his concerns or “being too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of such a ship.”
Modly’s comments, which were sent to reporters in written and acoustic form within a few hours, angered many of the seafarers on the ship, on which 230 people tested positive for covid-19 as of Tuesday, and their relatives and calls for his resignation from several Democrats from legislators.
By Monday evening, Modly had issued a statement apologizing for insulting Crozier, who also tested positive for the virus, but insisted that the captain write the letter to cause a stir.
“Captain Crozier is smart and passionate,” said Modly. “I think just because he’s not naive and stupid, he sent his alarming email with the intention of making it publicly available to alert the public to the situation on his ship.”
Esper referred to the Imbroglio in his memo, saying that Modly had “resigned on his own” and that his decision would allow the aircraft carrier and its sailors to “go forward”.
Esper had asked Modly to apologize on Monday, hoping that would be enough to go beyond the controversy, a senior official said. Instead, the pressure on Modly’s resignation increased, including among other Defense Department players, the official said.
President Trump, who was asked about the resignation in the White House, said he had no role in it and didn’t know Modly, but would not have asked him to resign.
“He did that, I think, just to end this problem,” Trump said. “In my opinion … in many ways it was a very selfless thing for him.”
Modly said in a memo released Tuesday evening that the navy was put in a negative spotlight “mainly due to my poor use of words” on the aircraft carrier.
“You are entitled to be angry with me about it,” he wrote. “There is no excuse, but maybe a look at understanding and hopefully empathy.”
He added that the crew “deserves a lot more empathy and less lectures” and is sorry.
Modly is being replaced by Army Undersecretary of State James McPherson, who was confirmed last month as the Army’s political representative. McPherson previously served as the Army General Counsel in the Trump Administration and Attorney at Law in the Navy before retiring in 2006 as the Advocate General of the Navy.
McPherson is expected to act as an actor until Trump’s candidate for the position, U.S. Ambassador to Norway, Kenneth John Braithwaite II, is confirmed by the Senate.
Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), The minority leader of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said in a statement released on Tuesday that Modly had informed him of his decision.
“I emphasized to him that the health and safety of our seafarers is of the utmost importance and that the naval leadership must make it absolutely clear that the decision to exonerate Captain Crozier is in no way interpreted as meaning that a commanding officer is undertaken by his Chain of command is prevented from taking the necessary steps to protect other seafarers and marines, ”said Reed.
The turmoil is the most recent challenge for a navy that has had to deal with a broader change in leadership in recent years. Modly’s resignation comes after his predecessor Richard V. Spencer was fired in November by a scandal surrounding Trump’s intervention in a Navy SEAL war crime case and had served for months with no political leader.
Separate crashes of the guided missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain in 2017 resulted in 17 deaths among the seafarers on board and raised further questions about the leadership of the Navy. Even before these incidents, a scandal surrounding a Malaysian defense contractor, nicknamed “Fat Leonard”, who bribed naval officers with cash, prostitutes and other incentives, clouded many officers who were seen as leading candidates for top jobs.
The result left Modly – a graduate of the US Naval Academy and Harvard Business School who had no particularly personal or close relationship with the President – at the hot seat of service at a time when the leadership had been subjected to an intensive examination by the Navy dealing with a public health crisis.
Modly, the son of Eastern European immigrants who moved to the United States after World War II, grew up in Cleveland, according to his official Navy biography. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1983 and served as a helicopter pilot before leaving active duty in 1990 to attend business school.
Modly was a senior executive at several companies, most recently at PwC, where he oversaw the NATO account, before being hired as Under-Secretary of the Navy under former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2017.
With his resignation, Modly has evolved from being a little-known behind-the-scenes official who served as chief management and chief information officer of his service to one of the most explosive military scandals in recent years. A captain was praised for sacrificing his career in serving his crew against a Trump administration that had already been criticized for a slow and arbitrary response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The incident raised questions about how much transparency the military should show in the face of a public health crisis and how top leaders should reconcile the need to ensure the wellbeing of members of the service with the need to continue military missions.
When Crozier’s letter was published, it flowed into the narrative that the White House was trying to disperse the leadership in Washington without taking serious steps in the early days to contain the outbreak.
The shootout was viewed by the carrier’s crew as an attempt to silence any information leaks about the situation on the ship that could become politically impractical for top officers and civilians in Washington. During his trip to Guam, Modly warned the carrier’s crew not to speak to the news media.
A Modly spokesman did not respond to a request for an interview.
Trump initially supported Modly and attacked Crozier’s letter as terrible. However, the president moderated his stance after news of the incumbent Navy secretary’s controversial statements.
At a press conference on Monday, Trump claimed that Crozier shouldn’t have sent the letter, but said he had heard good things about the captain and his career before. “So I’m going to get involved and see what’s going on because I don’t want to destroy anyone who is having a bad day,” Trump said.
Although both the Pentagon and the White House said Trump wasn’t personally involved in the decision to fire Crozier, the specter of inciting the President’s anger drove Modly’s decision to act quickly to the captain to fire before a thorough investigation has been carried out.
In an interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Modly said what had happened to his predecessor, who “got across” with the White House over Trump’s intervention in the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s war crimes, was fresh in his head when he decided to fire Crozier. Modly essentially said he acted so quickly to prevent Trump’s personal intervention.
“I didn’t want to make a decision that the president felt would have to intervene because the navy couldn’t be decisive,” said Modly. “If I were president and I saw a commanding officer of a ship exercise such poor judgment, I would ask why the Navy leadership itself took no action.”
Modly said he was aware that his predecessor had lost his job because the Navy “crossed with the President” and said, “I didn’t want this to happen again.”
At the heart of the debacle are questions of what a military leader should do when faced with a chain of command that he believes to make decisions that threaten the health and well-being of members of the service.
After the first three coronavirus cases occurred on the ship, Crozier and his superiors, according to three people familiar with the discussions, sought to reach consensus on what steps should be taken.
Crozier initially wanted to make more aggressive efforts to protect the health of the crew, even if this meant almost unprecedented steps, such as a 90 percent evacuation of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier operating in the Pacific as a signal from the US military to China. His immediate superiors advocated minor mitigation measures that Crozier said were insufficient to ensure that seafarers did not become seriously ill.
The captain said the airline could set sail immediately if there was a war issue and was ready to win a conflict despite the outbreak on board. “However, we are not at war and therefore cannot allow a single seaman to die unnecessarily as a result of this pandemic,” wrote Crozier.
He pointed out that he was unable to follow the social distancing guidelines published by the Centers for Control and Prevention of Diseases Due to Proximity and the shared facilities on board the airline. Crozier noted that even crew members who tested negative for Covid-19 later showed symptoms, which meant that the only solution was large-scale isolation.
Crozier asked the Navy to provide more than 4,000 seafarers in its crew with off-ship accommodation that complied with CDC guidelines to isolate them and return them to the ship virus-free after a quarantine period. In the meantime, the ship should be disinfected and 10 percent of the crew should remain on board to operate the nuclear reactor facility, refurbish the ship, and ensure safety.
In the end, the Navy started a large-scale evacuation of the ship to facilities in Guam, but so far the action has not been quite as extensive as Crozier had suggested.
In recent days the controversy has risen from whether it was appropriate for Crozier to send his letter of March 30th to whether it was appropriate for Modly to dismiss the captain without investigation and then the airline visit to make derogatory comments about Crozier, evolved The man himself fights Covid-19.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor of civil-military relations, said Modly’s speech to Theodore Roosevelt’s seafarers was poorly advised because it could get out in public like Crozier’s memo and because Modly seemed to be at least part of the Speaking out of time using profanity and disparaging Crozier.
“It was risky for him to go out there,” said Feaver. But if that were the decision, Feaver said, he would have advised the incumbent secretary to “stick to your conversation.”
Missy Ryan, Philip Rucker and Julie Tate contributed to this report.