Trump looms large over an aircraft carrier’s struggle with the coronavirus that has upended the Navy

Thomas Modly, then still the acting Navy secretary, at the unveiling of the new Ford-class aircraft carrier Doris Miller at Joint Base Pearl Harbour-Hickam on January 20. US Navy
  • Thomas Modly resigned Tuesday as acting Navy secretary amid the fallout over his handling of a coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Modly has been widely criticised in recent days over his firing of the aircraft carrier’s commanding officer and comments he made to the ship’s crew justifying that decision.
  • But behind the decision-making process, many see a Pentagon that is being bent to the whims of President Donald Trump.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump has mostly remained in the background of events around a coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier, but lawmakers and former officials say his handling of previous Navy scandals and attitude toward the Defence Department as a whole are shaping the decisions of department leaders.

The saga of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and Navy leadership began with the first positive tests aboard the ship and ignited when a letter from its commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, pleading for help with the outbreak was leaked to the media.

It appeared to culminate with Crozier’s firing April 2, a decision Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said he made because he lost confidence in Crozier and believed the captain “allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID outbreak on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally.”

Modly was widely rebuked for the decision and the message it sent, and he ultimately resigned on Tuesday.

John Kirby, a retired rear admiral who previously served as the State Department’s chief spokesman, tweeted that Modly’s justification made it “hard to see it as anything other than an over-reaction & unwarranted at a vital time for the ship.”

Trump’s intervention in the case of the disgraced Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher – reinstating his rank and preventing the Navy from removing his SEAL qualification – which eventually led to the resignation of Modly’s predecessor, Richard Spencer, also loomed over the Crozier firing, according to Lindsay Cohn and Alice Friend, both professors, and Jim Golby, an Army officer advising the US mission to NATO.

Neither Trump’s nor Modly’s authority to make those decisions is in question, they wrote in a Washington Post opinion article. But, in Modly’s case, they said, “the fact it was a political appointee associated with another highly politicized case who relieved Crozier, rather than a uniformed officer in the chain of command, may contribute to a perception that this is more about political embarrassment than a breach of security.”

‘In the president’s shoes’

In this Dec. 15, 2019, photo U.S.Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew during an all hands call on the ship's flight deck while conducting routine training in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. U.S. defence leaders are backing the Navy's decision to fire the ship captain who sought help for his coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier, even as videos showed his sailors cheering him as he walked off the vessel. Videos went viral on social media Friday, April 3, 2020, showing hundreds of sailors gathered on the ship chanting and applauding Navy Capt. Brett Crozier as he walked down the ramp, turned, saluted, waved and got into a waiting car. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier via AP)
US Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, then the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, during an all-hands call on December 15. Associated Press

Over the weekend – when Trump broke his silence on the incident to criticise Crozier’s letter – Modly acknowledged making the decision with Trump in mind, telling the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on Sunday that he didn’t want the president to “feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn’t be decisive.”

“I put myself in the president’s shoes,” Modly told Ignatius. “I considered how the president felt like he needed to get involved in Navy decisions” regarding Gallagher and Spencer. “I didn’t want that to happen again,” Modly added.

Crozier’s firing “comes from the top,” Ray Mabus, who served as Navy secretary during the Obama administration, tweeted on Sunday. “We have a #commanderinchief who pardons convicted war criminals, calls people ‘my generals,’ sends Navy ships on missions to fight a non existent surge in drugs evidently in an effort to distract from #COVID & fires anyone who doesn’t agree all the time w/bizarre theories & actions,” he wrote.

Firing the commanding officer, he added, “sends chilling signal to other commanders.”

Many lawmakers also inveighed against Modly after Crozier’s firing, including the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, and the chairs of the committee’s subcommittees, who called it “a destabilizing move” likely to put service members and military readiness at risk.

On a conference call Tuesday, hours before Modly resigned as acting Navy secretary, Smith pointed to that Washington Post interview as a sign of Trump’s influence, saying Modly’s decision was indicative of a leadership style “that basically says facts don’t matter, competence doesn’t matter, getting the job done doesn’t matter – all that matters is that you praise the president 24/7.”

“When you start trying to run an operation based on that premise, I mean, you’re going to make incompetent decisions like we saw play out with the Roosevelt,” Smith added.

Smith emphasised that he thought “very highly” of Modly and Defence Secretary Mark Esper, “in terms of their dedication, their skill, their competence, and their ability.”

“What I see here is what you would call undue command influence,” Smith added. “I see the creeping influence of Trump’s approach undermining the decision-making process within DOD.”

‘You are justified in being angry’

FILE - In this April 13, 2018, file photo the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier is anchored off Manila Bay west of Manila, Philippines. The captain of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus is asking for permission to isolate the bulk of his roughly 5,000 crew members on shore, which would take the warship out of duty in an effort to save lives. The ship is docked in Guam (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)
The USS Theodore Roosevelt anchored off Manila Bay west of Manila, Philippines, in 2018. Associated Press

Smith said he was “not unsympathetic” to Esper and Modly, as Trump is at the top of the military chain of command.

“But I am very, very worried about the impact that it’s having on their decision-making,” Smith said. “When I listened to the speech that acting Secretary Modly gave, it was almost like he was trying to do sort of a half-arse imitation of how Donald Trump would have given a speech. It wasn’t what I would have expected from the Thomas Modly that I know.”

“Why would a competent, capable veteran who has extensive experience, extensive leadership skills, make what seems like such an obvious mistake?” Smith added. “I think it’s because everyone [in the Pentagon] is trying to figure out, how do I stay in the good graces of the tyrant across the river there, who could potentially fire me tomorrow if I don’t?”

In his resignation letter, Modly thanked Esper and Trump for their “confidence.” In a memo to the force, Modly apologised for a “lack of situational awareness” during an address to the crew on Theodore Roosevelt on Monday that provoked a firestorm off the ship.

“You are justified in being angry with me about that,” Modly wrote, according to Task & Purpose. “There is no excuse, but perhaps a glimpse of understanding, and hopefully empathy.”

During a press conference Tuesday evening, Trump said he had “no role” in Crozier’s firing but again criticised him over the leaked letter, saying Crozier “didn’t have to be Ernest Hemingway.”

Modly “probably shouldn’t have said quite what he said, but he didn’t have to resign,” Trump added. “But he felt it would be better for the country, so, you know, I think it will end quickly.”