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Navy Secretary officially resigns, capping bizarre 24-hour Theodore Roosevelt fiasco

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly has officially resigned, capping perhaps the most tumultuous 24-hour public relations fiasco the sea service has ever encountered.

Modly notified Secretary of Defense Mark Esper of his resignation Tuesday following a meeting between the two. Esper subsequently confirmed Modly’s resignation in an official statement.

“He resigned on his own accord, putting the Navy and the Sailors above self so that the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward,” Esper said in an official statement.

“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. ... I wish him all the best.”

Esper has appointed Acting United States Under Secretary of the Army James McPherson as the new acting secretary of the Navy. McPherson was confirmed as the Army’s number two official just 15 days ago. He becomes the third Army official tapped by Esper in recent months to fill top roles.

Modly’s resignation comes less than 24 hours after numerous Democratic members of Congress called for his firing over his handling of the dismissal of Capt. Brett Crozier, the former commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, who penned a leaked letter pleading for U.S. intervention to stifle a COVID-19 outbreak on the 4,800-person ship.

On Monday, Modly kicked off a whirlwind of events when he boarded a flight destined for Guam, where, upon arrival, he addressed Theodore Roosevelt sailors in a speech that immediately raised eyebrows throughout the fleet and in Washington.

Over the ship’s 1MC intercom — the audio of the speech was obtained by Military Times — Modly told Roosevelt sailors that their commanding officer was either “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.”

After learning that his speech had gone public, Modly released an official statement in which he doubled down, saying, “I stand by every word I said.”

Shortly before news of his resignation became public, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., slammed Modly’s comments to the crew as “highly inappropriate” and said he needed to be removed from his post.

“Acting Secretary Modly’s actions and words demonstrate his failure to prioritize the force protection of our troops,” she said in a statement. “He showed a serious lack of the sound judgement and strong leadership needed at this time.”

Similarly, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., accused Modly of taking a “tone-deaf approach more focused on personal ego.”

“I disagree strongly with the manner in which acting Secretary of the Navy Modly has handled the COVID-19 outbreak on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt,” Smith said.

“His decision to relieve Captain Crozier was at best an overreaction to the extraordinary steps the Captain took to protect his crew. Acting Secretary Modly’s decision to address the sailors on the Roosevelt and personally attack Captain Crozier shows a tone-deaf approach more focused on personal ego than one of the calm, steady leadership we so desperately need in this crisis.”

With tensions escalating, President Donald Trump announced he would be stepping in to play the role of mediator in an effort to quell the intensifying vitriol on both sides.

“You know what, you have two good people and they’re arguing,” Trump said. “And I’m good, believe it or not, at settling arguments.”

Modly then reversed course, apologizing for the contents of his speech to Roosevelt sailors.

“I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid,” Modly said. “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.”

Amid the bureaucratic pandemonium, Modly managed to pen a 745-word opinion piece responding to a letter published days earlier in the New York Times by Theodore Roosevelt’s great grandson, Tweed Roosevelt, in which the 26th president’s relative drew parallels between the actions of Crozier and those taken by his great-grandfather during a yellow fever and malaria outbreak in 1898.

“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Roosevelt and his family’s immense heritage of service to the nation. In the case of Captain Crozier, however, he is wrong,” Modly responded via the Navy Live blog, which was deleted shortly after its publication.

Modly’s response, which was archived prior to its deletion, detailed the Navy’s reasons for dismissing Crozier before concluding with, “After all, Mr. Roosevelt, Captain Crozier was the Commanding Officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and I am relatively certain your great grandfather would have demanded much more under pressure.”

The bizarre 24-hour period came to its conclusion Tuesday with Modly’s resignation letter, in which he referred to his time as acting Navy secretary as “the honor of my life.”

“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,” Modly wrote.

“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.”

Military Times reporter Leo Shane contributed to this piece.

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