Embattled Navy secretary resigns

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned Tuesday, a day after his inflammatory speech to sailors aboard a coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier brought calls for him to be fired.

After first saying that he stood “by every word” of his speech, Modly was forced late Monday to apologize for his words to sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Modly had castigated their previous captain — who he had just fired — as either having broken the law by leaking a sensitive memo or being “too naive or too stupid” to think that it wouldn’t be leaked to be left in command the coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier.

The sudden departure of the acting Navy secretary raises the possibility that President Trump might re-instate that captain, who Modly removed last week for copying too many people when he sent a memo up his chain of command expressing concerns about the Navy’s response to the outbreak among his crew of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus

Modly’s resignation did not come as a surprise, but nonetheless represented yet another twist in an extraordinary series of events following the spread of COVID-19 on the Theodore Roosevelt. After the outbreak forced the Navy to sideline the carrier in Guam, Modly relieved Capt. Brett Crozier on April 2, saying he had “lost confidence” in Crozier after the captain’s memo was obtained and published, first by the San Francisco Chronicle and soon after by many other news organizations.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

But the acting secretary’s job was in peril after news reports of his speech to the crew prompted widespread calls for his resignation, particularly from senior Democratic lawmakers, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. After first issuing a statement Monday saying “I stand by every word I said” to the crew of the ship, which is presently docked in Guam, Modly issued a second statement apologizing profusely for insulting Crozier. But that was not enough to save his job.

Modly’s resignation raises the question of whether President Trump, who said Monday he planned to “get involved” in the case, might reinstate Crozier. That would be an extraordinary outcome, but when asked directly during his Monday afternoon press conference, Trump did not rule it out.

After criticizing Crozier’s decision to write and then widely circulate his memo — “It shows weakness,” Trump said — the president seemed willing to give Crozier a second chance. “His career prior to that was very good,” Trump said. “I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

“It’s certainly within his authority if he wants to reinstate Crozier,” said a former senior Navy official, who asked not to be named, when asked if Trump might give Crozier his job back.

The former senior Navy official said he could not recall any similar reinstatement of a Navy officer relieved of command in such circumstances. “Typically, when you are fired for ‘trust and confidence’ reasons, that’s a pretty sacrosanct tradition in the Navy,” he said. “It’s pretty much considered the kiss of death.”

Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. (Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh/Handout via Reuters)

But Trump’s reading of “the political tea leaves” might persuade him to make an exception in Crozier’s case, according to the former senior Navy official. The captain’s popularity with his crew could be easily discerned by the raucous send-off the sailors gave him when he left the ship for the last time, videos of which circulated widely on Twitter, Trump’s favorite social media platform.

The president realizes that not only did Modly’s relief of Crozier upset the Theodore Roosevelt’s almost-5,000 crew members, but it also upset “their moms and dads, many of whom are probably Trump supporters,” the former senior Navy official said. “Trump’s no fool,” he said. “I wouldn’t put it past him to revisit that decision.”

There is recent precedent for the president intervening in Navy personnel actions: Trump’s decision in November to prevent the Navy from stripping Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher of his prestigious Trident pin. Gallagher had been convicted of a war crime for posing for a photograph beside the corpse of an unarmed detainee. (Gallagher’s own colleagues had accused him of killing the detainee, but, after being promised immunity from prosecution, one of those colleagues recanted and said he had actually killed the detainee, leading to Gallagher’s acquittal on charges of murder.)

A recently retired defense official noted that the officer Modly announced as Crozier’s replacement is Rear Adm. Select Carlos Sardiello, who previously commanded the Theodore Roosevelt, and that Crozier is sick with COVID-19 himself and still in Guam. “If this [controversy] wasn’t happening and Crozier got sick with COVID-19, he probably would have come off the ship anyway and there would have been an interim commander,” the recently retired defense official said.

The retired official added that if Trump does reinstate Crozier, it will be interesting to see whether those who criticized the president for reaching down into the Navy in the Gallagher case remain consistent in their views that the commander in chief should refrain from such interference in military personnel actions.

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