Updated at 5:34 p.m. ET
Five days after firing the commander of a coronavirus-crippled U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and a day after apologizing for calling that skipper naive and stupid in heated remarks to that warship's crew, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly has called it quits. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has accepted his resignation.
Modly resigned amid public outrage over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt and growing demands from congressional Democrats for his removal.
Esper said Modly submitted his resignation "on his own accord, putting the Navy and the Sailors above self so that the U.S.S. Roosevelt, and the Navy as an institution, can move forward." Esper said he is appointing Army Undersecretary Jim McPherson as acting Navy secretary to succeed Modly.
McPherson had served only just under two weeks as the Army's No. 2 civilian. "He is a smart, capable, and professional leader," Esper wrote in a statement, "who will restore confidence and stability in the Navy during these challenging times."
Modly's departure as the Navy's top political official comes two weeks after the drama of the Roosevelt began, when the warship confirmed its first three cases of COVID-19 among more than 5,800 crew members after making port calls in Vietnam.
An impassioned memo emailed to superior officials and dated March 30 from the carrier's commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, described an "accelerating" crisis aboard and pleaded for swift removal of its crew to adequate quarantine housing in Guam, where the warship is currently docked.
Publication of the leaked memo on March 31 by the San Francisco Chronicle sparked a furor over whether Crozier had intentionally exposed the weakened condition of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
On Thursday, Modly sacked Crozier, a decision he called his own. He then paid a surprise visit to the Roosevelt on Monday morning local time, where he addressed the crew over the ship's loudspeakers, sprinkling his remarks with obscenities and accusing Crozier of betrayal.
Modly also accused Crozier in his speech of being "either too naive or too stupid" to skipper the aircraft carrier if he believed his memo would not be leaked to the news media.
On Monday evening, after a storm of criticism for those comments, Modly issued a statement saying he wanted to apologize to Crozier, his family and the Roosevelt's crew "for any pain my remarks may have caused."
Modly was appointed acting Navy secretary in November 2019 after Richard Spencer was forced out as the Navy's top civilian in a dispute over President Trump's support for Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who had been accused of war crimes.
News of Modly's departure after just five months at the helm of the Navy came at the same hour that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanded his resignation or removal, saying he had shown "a serious lack of the sound judgment and strong leadership needed during this time."
Adam Smith, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, also called for Modly's ouster.
"Acting Secretary Modly's decision to address the sailors on the Roosevelt and personally attack Captain Crozier," Smith wrote on the committee's website, "shows a tone-deaf approach more focused on personal ego than one of the calm, steady leadership we so desperately need in this crisis."
In an op-ed column on Monday in The Washington Post, Modly is described as having wanted to spare Trump from having to fire Crozier.
"I didn't want to get into a decision where the president would feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn't be decisive," Modly is quoting as telling the Post's David Ignatius.
Trump has gone from supporting Crozier's removal at a news conference on Saturday — "I thought it was terrible what he did, to write a letter" — to suggesting on Monday that Modly may have overreacted.
"His career prior to that was very good," Trump said of Crozier. "I don't want to destroy somebody for having a bad day."
The fate of Crozier remains uncertain. He is reported by The New York Times to be housed in "distinguished visitors quarters" at Naval Base Guam after testing positive for the coronavirus.
An official Navy investigation of Crozier's handling of the coronavirus outbreak on the Roosevelt and his efforts to draw attention to the ship's plight was to have concluded Monday. But according to a statement to USNI News from the Navy, it will be several more days before that report comes out.
"Any further action regarding the former commanding officer, Captain Crozier," Esper wrote in his announcement of Modly's resignation, "will wait until that investigation is completed."