WASHINGTON — The Navy's top civilian has resigned after criticizing an aircraft carrier captain who pleaded for help with a coronavirus outbreak on his ship.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper accepted the resignation and tapped James McPherson, undersecretary of the Army, to be the new acting Navy secretary.
"He resigned on 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," Esper wrote in a Tuesday statement. "I have the deepest respect for anyone who serves our country, and who places the greater good above all else. Secretary Modly did that today, and I wish him all the best."
The move comes hours after acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly apologized for ridiculing U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, whose letter pleading for help amid a coronavirus outbreak on a U.S. warship was leaked to the media.
"Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid," wrote Modly in a statement on Monday. "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."
"I also want to apologize directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused," he added.
Modly's decision came after prominent leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, called for him to resign. "Sadly, Acting Secretary Modly's actions and words demonstrate his failure to prioritize the force protection of our troops," Pelosi said in a statement.
The apology was issued on the heels of a surprise speech Modly made aboard the coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt.
"If he didn't think that information was going to get out into the public in this information age that we live in, then he was, A, too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this," Modly told the crew over a loudspeaker.
"The alternative is that he did it on purpose," Modly said, adding that he stood by his decision to relieve Crozier of his command.
Last week, Modly told reporters at the Pentagon that he had lost confidence in Crozier and that the letter "raised alarm bells unnecessarily."
On Monday, President Donald Trump said he may get involved in the messy tit-for-tat between Modly and Crozier, when asked about the saga revolving around the captain's stunning plea for help.
"Look the letters shouldn't have been sent and certainly, they shouldn't have been leaked," Trump said, adding that the letter showed "weakness" within the U.S. Navy.
"It was weak, we don't want weak," he added, saying that he wanted to get involved in the matter because he was pleased with Crozier's military career.
"I looked at his record and he's been an outstanding person," Trump said. "I'm going to be getting involved and see exactly what is going on there because I don't want to destroy someone for having a bad day."
In a four-page letter, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Crozier described a worsening coronavirus outbreak aboard the warship, a temporary home to more than 4,000 crew members. More than 100 people on the ship were infected.
"We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors," Crozier wrote. "The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating."
Some 173 crew have tested positive so far, possibly including Crozier himself.
The coronavirus exposure aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is currently docked in Guam, follows a recently completed port call to Da Nang, Vietnam.
Fifteen days after leaving Vietnam, three sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for the virus. The infections were the first reports of the coronavirus on a U.S. Navy vessel at sea.
On March 24, Modly told reporters at the Pentagon that the trio of sailors and those who had been in contact with the individuals were identified and quarantined.
And while port calls for U.S. Navy ships have since been canceled, Modly defended the decision to complete the port call by saying that at the time, the coronavirus cases in Vietnam were less than 100.
Modly ascended to the Navy's top spot after the shock resignation of then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer amid controversy over the handling of a case involving a Navy SEAL convicted of illegally posing for pictures with the corpse of an ISIS fighter.