Modly’s resignation comes a little more than a week after Capt. Brett Crozier, the then-commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, sent a memo warning of coronavirus spreading among the sailors on the aircraft carrier. The memo leaked and Modly subsequently removed Crozier from command. The former acting secretary flew to Guam to address the ship, insulting Crozier to thousands of sailors who had given their former captain a standing ovation as he left the ship days before.
The audio of that address was leaked to media outlets and the uproar over Modly’s remarks — calling Crozier “too naive or too stupid” to be in command of the aircraft carrier and saying that going outside of the chain-of-command with his memo represented a “betrayal” — quickly made his position untenable.
In his resignation letter, Modly did not mention the controversy.
“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.
“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.”
“He resigned of his own accord, putting the Navy and Sailors above self so that the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and the Navy, as an institution, can move forward,” Esper wrote. “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.”
Undersecretary of the Army James McPherson — who served on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the 1980s — has been tapped to succeed Modly, Esper wrote. McPherson is a retired rear admiral and was the former judge advocate general of the Navy.
On Monday, Modly told the crew of the Roosevelt that their former commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, was either “too naive or too stupid” to be in command or that he intentionally leaked a memo to the media, in which Crozier warned about coronavirus spreading aboard the aircraft carrier and urged action to save his sailors, according to remarks obtained by CNN.
“Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naive nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite,” Modly said in his statement. “We pick our carrier commanding officers with great care. Captain 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.”
Modly’s Monday morning remarks to the crew prompted sailors to yell back in frustration. President Donald Trump said that he might “get involved” in the matter, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper later ordered Modly to apologize, two US officials told CNN.
Tuesday’s news comes after top members of the House Armed Services Committee began calling for his departure.
Modly told the crew that Crozier had to go, citing loss of confidence and a failure to adhere to the chain of command. It was a “betrayal of trust, with me, with his chain of command,” he said in remarks that were piped over the vessel’s public address system.
Modly also suggested Crozier leaked the memo on purpose or was “too naive or too stupid” to be in command if he didn’t think that sending it to over 20 people would not result in it getting out to the public.
“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out to the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either a) too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly said. “The alternative is that he did this on purpose.”
At least 230 sailors aboard the Roosevelt had tested positive for coronavirus as of Tuesday morning, an increase of 57 cases since the day before, a US Navy official told CNN.
Officials at the Pentagon are split about whether Crozier should have been relieved, but most feel the situation was badly handled and is now causing additional problems at an already difficult time.
“I haven’t heard it exactly, I heard they heard,” Trump said, referring to the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. “I heard they had a statement that was made, if that were the statement, it’s a strong statement.”
“The letters shouldn’t have been sent, and certainly they shouldn’t have been leaked,” Trump said of Crozier’s memo. “I’ve heard very good things about the gentlemen. Both gentlemen, by the way, I will say this, about both gentlemen. And I may look into it from the standpoint of something should be resolved because I’m hearing good things about both people.”
Trump added that he “may just get involved.”
Shortly afterward, Modly moved into damage control mode, but his apology still insinuated that Crozier had deliberately leaked the memo himself.
“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,” he said.
Modly also apologized directly to Crozier for “any pain my remarks may have caused.”
“(Crozier and his family), and the entire Navy, have my full commitment that I will continue to help get the TR back to full health and back to sea where we can move forward beyond this unfortunate situation,” he said.
This breaking story has been updated to reflect Undersecretary of the Army James McPherson has been named as Modly’s successor after he resigned.
CNN’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.