Acting Navy secretary is out after bungled firing of USS Theodore Roosevelt’s captain

WASHINGTON – Acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly has resigned after mishandling the firing of the captain of the COVID-19-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt, sources with knowledge of the decision have confirmed.

Modly offered to resign, according to a Capitol Hill source, and Defense secretary Mark Esper accepted, according to a Defense Department official, neither of whom were authorized to speak publicly.

Modly survived his initial decision to fire Capt. Brett Crozier, the aircraft carrier’s skipper whose leaked email to Navy officials showed him pleading for help as the coronavirus swept through the Roosevelt’s 4,800-member crew. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, voiced support for Modly’s move.

But Modly’s decision to fly to Guam to visit sailors and explain his decision in a profanity-laced speech proved to be his undoing. He apologized Monday for his speech.

Modly had disparaged the former captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, calling him “too naive or too stupid” to command the stricken aircraft carrier before issuing a remarkable apology taking back the insults.

FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2019, file photo, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee about about ongoing reports of substandard housing conditions in Washington, on Capitol Hill.

“Let me be clear, I do not think Capt. Brett Crozier is naive or stupid,” Modly said, according to the statement released by the Navy. “I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.”

His apology came hours after President Donald Trump vowed to look into the matter. Trump had called the Crozier’s letter a “mistake.” But Trump said Crozier had had “a very good career,” and he was reluctant to “destroy” it.

Modly’s speech immediately drew fire from Capitol Hill, with numerous lawmakers calling for his ouster.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for Modly’s ouster. 

The last Navy Secretary, Richard Spencer, was fired for his handling of another controversial case. That one involved Trump’s intervention in the case of Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallager, the Navy SEAL accused of war crimes. He was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with a corpse.

On Tuesday, the Navy reported 230 positive coronavirus cases among the crew of the Roosevelt after testing 79% of them. About 2,000 sailors have been moved to facilities on shore in Guam, where the ship is docked. 

The Roosevelt is the only coronavirus-stricken ship deployed – Guam is not its home port. Four other affected ships have not left their home ports. The affected sailors from the other ships have been isolated. 

However, testing for COVID-19 has been limited to larger ships, and the Navy does not know how many smaller vessels at sea might be affected, said Sen. Richard Bluementhal, D-Conn., and also a member of the Armed Services Committee. The Defense official agreed that testing is limited but said deployed ships have had limited or no contact with the outside world and are considered low risk. 

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