WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned on Tuesday after he faced mounting backlash for firing and ridiculing the commander of a U.S. aircraft carrier who pleaded for help stemming a coronavirus outbreak onboard.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Modly’s resignation on Twitter, saying the Navy’s top civilian had “resigned of his own accord.”
But the resignation occurred only after mounting pressure from Congress and a backlash from the crew, and followed President Donald Trump’s suggestion on Monday that he might get involved in the crisis — saying the Navy captain whom Modly fired was also a good man.
“I briefed President Trump after my conversation with Secretary Modly,” Esper said, as he named an Army Undersecretary Jim McPherson to replace Modly as acting Navy secretary.
Modly’s resignation follows a surprise speech he made on Monday to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, which leaked publicly, in which he defended his decision to fire their commander, Captain Brett Crozier, and questioned his character, saying at one point he was either “stupid” or “naive.”
Crozier was revered by his crew for writing a four-page letter that leaked publicly calling for stronger action from the Navy to help stem an outbreak of coronavirus infections aboard his ship.
Earlier on Tuesday, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi added her voice to calls for Modly’s removal.
“Sadly, Acting Secretary Modly’s actions and words demonstrate his failure to prioritize the force protection of our troops,” Pelosi said in a statement.
A fellow Democrat, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, had already called for Modly’s removal.
Modly apologized on Monday for his remarks about Crozier, but Pelosi and Smith said that was not enough to overcome what they described as his highly inappropriate comments.
His apology did little to mollify the crew on the carrier.
“He said what he said and nobody is going to forget it,” a sailor on the carrier told Reuters.
As of Tuesday, 230 of about 5,000 personnel on the Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the coronavirus.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Cynthia Osterman)