WASHINGTON — Less than 24 hours after flying to Guam and igniting a firestorm of public criticism, including from key members of Congress, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly issued a public apology Monday evening.
On Monday, Modly flew out to Guam and addressed the crew of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt on his recent decision to relieve the commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, over a letter leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle that urged the Navy to remove the bulk of the crew off the ship as quickly as possible to avoid further spread of COVID-19 on board.
In his remarks to the crew, Modly said the issue had become a scandal in Washington and that if the CO didn’t think his letter would leak he was either “too stupid or too naïve to be the commanding officer of a ship like this,” adding that “the alternative is he did it on purpose.”
Late in the day, Modly issued a statement apologizing to Crozier and his family, saying he did not believe the captain was stupid or naïve.
“I want to apologize to the Navy for my recent comments to the crew of the TR,” Modly said. “Let me be clear: I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite.
“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.”
Modly’s late night apology is a clear about-face from earlier in the day, when the Navy issued a statement from Modly saying he stood by his comments but regretted any profanity he used, adding that “anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand.”
In earlier statements explaining why he fired Crozier, Modly took issue with the fact that Crozier put out sensitive information about the readiness of the ship in an unclassified document and distributed it widely, raising the chances it would leak to the media.
Ironically, Modly’s comments quickly leaked to the media, first in print and then in audio where sailors aboard the Roosevelt can be heard swearing in response to his statements.
Modly’s apology comes as key members of the House Armed Services Committee, the committee with oversight over the Navy, began calling for his resignation, led by committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington.
“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,” Smith said in a statement Monday evening. “I no longer have confidence in Acting Secretary Modly’s leadership of the Navy and believe he should be removed from his position.”
A number of Democrats in the House joined Smith’s call, including the chairman of the Navy’s direct oversight committee in the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Courtney, who leads the HASC’s seapower subcommittee.
"Acting Secretary Modly’s gratuitous personal attack on a Naval Officer infected with COVID-19 and in quarantine is stunning, and outrageous,” Courtney said. “At this critical time, the men and women of our Navy need to know their leadership is laser-focused on ensuring their wellbeing, and giving them the support they need to accomplish their mission.
“Flying halfway across the world to publicly insult Captain Crozier, a highly decorated and respected officer who has already taken a hit for doing what he thought was right for the crew, does nothing to make our Navy safer or stronger,” continued Courtney. "Unfortunately, after what I have seen play out over the past week, Mr. Modly has lost my confidence to lead the Navy and its men and women at this challenging time. I believe it’s time for him to step aside.”
When asked for comment on Modly’s remarks to the Roosevelt crew, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not weigh in either way, saying he was focusing on what the Navy is doing to contain the spread of COVID-19 on its ships.
"I have asked Navy leaders to provide greater clarity on unit-level policies to prevent service members from getting and transmitting COVID-19 and support unit leaders in rapidly responding to outbreaks as they occur.”
In a press conference Monday evening, President Donald Trump said he was going to look into the matter.
Modly may also be facing internal pressure in the Pentagon about his comments. On Sunday, before Modly’s comments to the crew of the Roosevelt, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he backed Modly’s decision to remove Crozier.
However, asked in a Monday press conference if Esper’s support still stood, Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman repeatedly stated that Esper and he had not had a chance to talk about Modly that day, and that Esper’s Sunday statement stands “for the time being.”
The calls for Modly’s resignation cap the latest in a series of stunning turns for the Navy, and raises the specter of yet another leadership crisis for the service, which has seen a succession of high-level firings and scandals in recent years.
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.