Acting Navy Secretary Resigns Over Response to Outbreak on Ship

WASHINGTON (CN) — Acting secretary of the U.S. Navy Thomas Modly stepped down Tuesday following the release of leaked audio in which he referred to the recently ousted commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt as “too naïve or too stupid” to lead his crew.

Modly fired Captain Brett Crozier last Thursday after a four-page memo by the commander was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle. In it, Crozier said he believed the sailors of the Roosevelt were under threat of being overwhelmed by coronavirus and needed immediate assistance.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The inherent space limitations of the ship made proper social distancing impossible, Crozier said. He also requested the Navy assist with the provision of “compliant quarantine rooms” for over 100 of the ship’s crew.

Days after Crozier was fired — and received resounding applause as he disembarked the Roosevelt — Modly addressed Crozier’s former crew over an internal intercom on the ship now docked in Guam. In an audio file first leaked to The Daily Caller, Modly was heard lacing into Crozier and suggesting the commander betrayed both his crew and the Navy’s trust through what amounted to either willful ignorance or bald ineptitude.

Reports of Modly’s comments prompted backlash from lawmakers calling on Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper to demand Modly’s resignation.

During a White House coronavirus taskforce briefing Tuesday, Trump he had “no role” in Modly’s decision.

“I’ve heard he was a very good man. The whole thing was very unfortunate… The captain should not have written a letter. He didn’t have to be Ernest Hemingway,” Trump said of Crozier. “He had a bad day. But he shouldn’t be writing letters and sending them to many people… Then it gets out to the media. The question is how it gets out to the media.”

Trump said he believed Secretary Esper was taking the matter with Crozier under advisement. The Department of Defense did not immediately return request for comment.

“They’re going to take it under regular Navy channels to see what they want to do. He made a mistake, but he shouldn’t have done that, and the secretary shouldn’t have quite said what he said. He didn’t have to resign but he felt it would be better for the country to end quickly,” Trump said.

In a statement Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee chair Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, said Modly’s resignation was the “right thing to do.”

“After mismanaging the Covid-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, it became obvious that Acting Secretary Modly had forfeited his ability to lead the Navy,” Smith said. “His actions had become a distraction at a time when we need the Navy to be focused on preserving the safety of our sailors and maintaining the readiness of our fleet.”

Requests for emergency assistance like Crozier’s have continued to pour in throughout the U.S. as the coronavirus cases tops 350,000. Some relief is on the way to hard-hit regions courtesy of California Governor Gavin Newsom, who said the state would ship a small surplus of ventilators to New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Each state will receive 100 ventilators on loan.

The federal government has shipped ventilators to several states, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but has struggled to meet demand. But Trump said the national stockpile of ventilators now sits at just over 8,700 and that the “military is ready to move them to the states that need them.”

The president said manufacturers are assisting with the production of 2,200 additional ventilators to be available by April 13 and 5,100 more on May 4.

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that Maryland and Delaware will receive 50 ventilators right away from the stockpile. On personal protective equipment, like masks, gloves and face shields, Pence said FEMA is relying on a “control tower system modeled after military logistics” to process the flow of equipment.

“This means that 90% of the suppliers are being routed through this system,” Pence said.

The system has allowed 1.6 million respirator masks, 700,000 surgical masks and 24 million gloves to be issued to Detroit, Michigan, Pence said. How FEMA allocates resources is informed by immunologist and taskforce coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx but there are still kinks being smoothed out. Earlier Tuesday, the Illinois state comptroller Susana Mendoza appeared on CNN telling Anderson Cooper she was forced to send staff members to meet with a middleman providing face masks at an area McDonald’s restaurant.

“This is what we resorted to as a state. It feels like you’re almost doing a sketchy drug deal on the road when in fact you’re trying to save people’s lives,” Mendoza said.

Birx later offered cautious optimism about case rates overall. Early social distancing efforts on the West Coast may have helped slow the impact on the east coast. But other areas, like in Washington, D.C., the latest data confirms 1.5 cases in every 1,000 people. Birx said it is areas like this, where case rates hover between 1 and 2, that must continue to be watched closely.  

The task force will also soon reach out to public health labs sitting on roughly a million test kits at labs that don’t have the current ability to process them. Once they do, Birx said the focus will be on increasing their diagnostic testing, expanding community surveillance and more testing of health care workers. 

Self-swab tests are still being developed for broad distribution, but access will vary state by state. The same goes for drive-through testing for now.  

In the meantime, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release guidance Wednesday for people who have been in close proximity to the infected and want to return to work.

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