Acting United States Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned on Tuesday after he faced mounting backlash for firing and ridiculing the commander of a US aircraft carrier who pleaded for the help stemming a coronavirus outbreak onboard.
Modly stepped down five days after removing the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier for writing a letter, which was leaked to the media.
In the four-page letter, Brett Crozier had described the virus-struck vessel's dire situation and alleged that Pentagon was not paying adequate attention to it.
The removal of Crozier, respected in the military and popular with his crew, was seen as heavy-handed and decided too quickly, before an investigation was carried out.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Modly's resignation, saying the Navy's top civilian had resigned of his own accord, putting the Navy and the sailors above self so that the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward.
Trump concurred, saying it was a selfless act and adding he had nothing to do with it. The whole thing was … very unfortunate, Trump said at the White House.
In a note to sailors, Modly said he took responsibility for events over the past few days. It is not just missiles that can take us down, words can do it too, if we aren't careful with how and when we use them, Modly said. It’s my fault. I own it.
When Modly fired him over the leak, his crew hailed Crozier as a hero and gave him a rousing sendoff captured on video, apparently upsetting Modly and leading the Navy's top civilian to fly to Guam to castigate the captain in a speech to the crew on Monday.
Modly questioned Crozier's character, saying at one point he was either stupid or naive. After audio of his speech leaked, including expletives, Modly initially stood by his remarks. But later, at Esper's request, he issued an apology.
Trump appeared to take Modly's side, saying Crozier had erred with the letter.
The captain should not have written a letter. He didn’t have to be Ernest Hemingway. He made a mistake, but he had a bad day, Trump told a news briefing.
As of Tuesday, 230 of about 5,000 personnel on the Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the coronavirus. Navy officials say that sailors on a number of other ships have tested positive too.
Esper said Modly's replacement as acting Navy secretary will be current Army Undersecretary Jim McPherson, a retired admiral.