Inside the Wild Final Week of the Acting Navy Secretary

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly speaks at a Pentagon press briefing, Washington, D.C., April 2, 2020

DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

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Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly speaks at a Pentagon press briefing, Washington, D.C., April 2, 2020

How it all fell apart for Thomas Modly in seven days that included a two-plane, 50-hour trip to chastise a fired skipper to his sailors aboard a COVID-stricken aircraft carrier.

New details about Thomas Modly’s whirlwind final week as acting Navy secretary shed light on how the service’s civilian leader chose to spend his time as a global pandemic sidelined an aircraft carrier on a high-profile deployment. And they show that not one but two VIP business jets were scrambled from the mid-Atlantic to Guam in the wake of Modly’s decisions to fire the captain of USS Theodore Roosevelt, then fly to the ship and denigrate the former skipper to his crew.

Thursday, April 2

Modly decided to relieve Capt. Brett Crozier of command on the morning of April 2, when there were about 100 known cases of COVID-19 among the Roosevelt’s 4,865-member crew. 

Three days had passed since Washington woke to news that Crozier had sent a memo begging Navy leaders for more urgent help finding isolation accommodations ashore in Guam for the vast majority of his sailors, arguing that keeping them aboard the crowded ship was an “unnecessary risk.” The commanding officer had emailed it to about a dozen people in and out of his chain of command, and the memo had made its way to the press. Modly deemed this “extremely poor judgement,” considering the assistance the CO was already getting, including phone calls from the acting secretary and his staff. The secretary had even offered to fly to Guam, an offer Crozier had declined as a distraction.

The final straw had come in a 7 a.m. phone call with Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, commander of the Roosevelt strike group and Crozier’s immediate boss. Modly asked: Had the captain sought Baker’s permission to send his memo? Baker responded: no. 

Modly concluded that Crozier “had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally.” He told Adm. Michael Gilday — the chief of naval operations, or CNO, who had earlier told reporters that the captain might escape punishment — to have the captain relieved.

The word reached Crozier in the middle of the night aboard his ship in Guam. The sky was still pitch-black as the captain shouldered a small backpack, donned a Navy cap, and walked past the hundreds of Roosevelt sailors forming a crisp corridor among the fighter jets on the hangar deck. He returned their silent salutes, and then, as cheers rose behind him, descended to the floodlit pier. A car was waiting to take Crozier, who was already showing COVID symptoms, to a two-week quarantine at Naval Base Guam.

Back in Washington, it was still midday. To minimize the time needed to get a new Roosevelt captain up to speed, Navy leaders decided to reinstall Crozier’s predecessor. Recently tapped for promotion to rear admiral, Capt. Carlos Sardiello had relinquished command of the carrier on Nov. 1 and was just weeks into his new job as operations director for Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Pack a bag, Sardiello was told; you’re flying to Guam tomorrow.

Around 4:30 p.m., Modly called a short-notice Pentagon press conference to announce Crozier’s relief. He told reporters that he had lost confidence in the CO’s judgment, in part because his memo “creates the perception that the Navy’s not on the job, the government’s not on the job.” He also inflated, accidentally or otherwise, the number of people to whom Crozier had sent his memo. And in response to a question, he said he “received absolutely no pressure” in the matter from his Trump administration higher-ups, and “no communication” with the White House at all.

By evening, the number of known COVID cases aboard the Roosevelt had risen to 114.

Friday, April 3

At 4:45 a.m. Washington time, a message from Modly to Roosevelt sailors and their families appeared on the ship’s official Facebook page. 

“I am entirely convinced that your Commanding Officer loves you, and that he had you at the center of his heart and mind in every decision that he has made,” Modly’s message began. “I also know that you have great affection, and love, for him as well. But it is my responsibility to ensure that his love and concern for you is matched, if not exceeded by, his sober and professional judgment under pressure.” 

The rest of the 407-word missive was a rather more conventional encomium to the Roosevelt and its sailors as bulwarks in uncertain times. But this was not the last time Modly would advance the notion that his duty lay between a beloved CO and his crew.

Over the next few hours, several Roosevelt sailors posted videos of Crozier’s ebullient sendoff, drawing wide attention on Facebook and Twitter, generating a new round of headlines, and fueling a widening public debate about Modly’s decision.

Within the Navy, wrote Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams, “the move left sailors, Marines, and former senior leaders more confused than angry.” Why wasn’t there more investigation before removing the CO of a ship in crisis? Why would a captain with 28 years of service send a career-ending letter unless he had no other way to help his crew? 

And in Washington, the firing “sparked swift and sudden outrage from lawmakers and former service members who saw the move as retribution” for putting Navy leaders in a bad light, Williams wrote. Former vice president and 2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden retweeted one of the videos. A group of prominent Democratic senators asked the Pentagon inspector general to look into the firing. Max Boot noted in the Washington Post that Crozier was the first, and so far, the only U.S. government official punished for actions regarding the mismanaged coronavirus pandemic. And the New York Times published an oped by Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson, who recounted how the Rough Rider himself had risked his career to save epidemic-threatened troops by writing a similar letter that appeared in the press.

To defend his decision, Modly granted an interview to right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I think [Crozier] put the spotlight on the Navy in a negative light when all the things he was asking for we’re surging for him,” the acting secretary said. “Most disappointing, I think,” was that he had given Crozier his cellphone number, so “that if he felt anything wasn’t going well and he needed help, that he could reach out to me directly. And he did not do that.” Modly, who flew helicopters as a junior naval aviator, did not acknowledge that such a command-jumping call would have brought its own career-killing risks. 

By midday on Friday, Modly had made a second fateful decision: fly to Guam and talk to the Roosevelt’s sailors. 

The Navy operates a small fleet of business jets for its senior leaders: one Gulfstream V and three Gulfstream 550s, known by their military designations as the C-37A and C-37B. Few small aircraft can match their speed, operating altitude, and range, yet even they cannot do the 8,000-mile trip from the U.S. East Coast to Guam without refueling. Given the distance, and Modly’s desire for haste, Navy planners decided to combine his travel with Sardiello’s, using two planes and three crews. 

Such dual-plane “missions” had become rarer since 2017, when Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned over his lavish use of charter planes. The White House put greater restrictions on non-commercial travel for federal officials. A waiver was required for Modly’s trip, but his staff did not seek one until after he returned. 

At 4:12 p.m. on Friday, a Navy C-37B, tail number 378, took off from Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington, D.C. A short 20 minutes later, it touched down at Norfolk Naval Station’s Chambers Field, where Capt. Sardiello climbed aboard. The next leg took 10 hours: Sardiello’s plane landed in Honolulu at 9:45 p.m. local time.

Some 3,800 miles further west, the evacuation of the Roosevelt was going more slowly than expected: 1,548 sailors had been moved to accommodations ashore, well short of the 2,700 Modly had projected on Wednesday. It was proving hard to find hundreds of rooms on short notice, particularly with Guam hotel workers observing stay-at-home guidelines. 

The number of known COVID cases aboard the Roosevelt had reached 137.

Saturday, April 4

In the afternoon, Modly traveled to JBA Andrews, where he boarded a second Navy C-37B, tail number 376, accompanied by his chief of staff, his senior military advisor, and a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent along to provide security. A second full aircrew went along as well: pilot, co-pilot, crew chief, flight attendant. The plane took off at 2:42 p.m., and headed west to Honolulu.


A 2015 photo of Navy C-37B No. 376 / CC2.0 Anna Zvereva


Their twinjet was somewhere over the Midwest when David Ignatius, a senior Washington Post columnist, posted a piece on Crozier’s removal. “One of the surprising aspects of the Roosevelt drama is how closely Modly became involved in matters that would normally be handled by uniformed officers,” Ignatius wrote. Mike Mullen, a retired admiral who had served as Joint Chiefs chairman and the Navy’s top officer, told him: “I think the firing was a really bad decision, because it undermines the authority of the military commanders who are trying to take care of their troops, and significantly negatively impacts the willingness of commanders to speak truth to power.” Mullen, who has rarely spoken out in retirement, has been a mentor or informal advisor to the current CNO, Gilday, for more than 20 years. 

As Modly’s plane crossed the Rocky Mountains, President Trump was endorsing the decision to fire Crozier. “I thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter,” Trump said at his evening press conference. “I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered. And he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter.” 

The president’s endorsement may have reassured Modly, who well knew what happened to service secretaries who crossed the commander in chief. Modly had been elevated from Navy undersecretary just months earlier precisely because his predecessor, Richard Spencer, had acted against Trump’s wishes in the case of former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

Modly’s flight to Honolulu took about nine and a half hours, and C-37B No. 376 touched down at 6:24 p.m. local time. The on-duty aircrew finished up post-flight arrangements, and both aircrews headed off, and eventually to bed; it was past midnight in Washington.

Across the tarmac, C-37B No. 378 was gassed up and waiting for the acting secretary, as was Capt. Sardiello, who would join him on his flight to Guam. But first, Modly had a phone call to make.

Even the airplanes that ferry Navy VIPs can’t place a phone call as clearly and easily as a modern cellphone, and so Modly used his moments on the ground to dial Ignatius. It was 1 a.m. in Washington, but Ignatius — himself the son of a Navy secretary — picked up.

Modly “offered a lengthy account of his actions” in firing Crozier, Ignatius wrote later, and said he moved quickly because he feared that Trump would order it done. “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,” the acting secretary told Ignatius.

His call finished, Modly joined Sardiello aboard No. 378. The aircrew who had flown the captain to Hawaii the previous night were rested and ready, and at 8:07 Hawaii time — past 2 a.m. Eastern — their plane went wheels up and headed for Guam.

Sunday, April 5

A Honolulu-Guam flight takes more than eight hours by commercial airliner — a bit less in a high-flying C-37B — and so No. 378 landed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam around midnight local time. Modly and Sardiello were met at the airport by 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Bill Merz and others. Including getting to Andrews, and then from Andersen’s terminal to his VIP quarters, Modly’s trip had taken more than 20 hours. 

As Modly slept, his boss defended him on a Sunday-morning talk show. CNN’s Jake Tapper was interviewing Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Tapper played one of Crozier’s farewell videos, and asked, “So, Secretary Esper, can you explain to those sailors cheering, ‘Captain Crozier, Captain Crozier,’ why exactly he was relieved of his command?”

Replied Esper, “I think acting Secretary Modly made a very tough decision, a decision that I support. It was based on his view that he had lost faith and confidence in the captain, based on his actions. It was supported by Navy leadership.” Esper did not say then, or ever, that he agreed Crozier should’ve been fired; he has only said with careful words that he supported the Navy secretary’s decision. 

The defense secretary also relayed the latest numbers: at least 155 Roosevelt sailors had tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly thereafter, news broke that Crozier, quarantined on Guam in VIP quarters, had been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

The sun was high in the Guam sky when Modly arrived aboard the Roosevelt to fulfill his purpose for flying one-third of the way around the world. About 1 p.m. local time, he took a microphone plugged into the aircraft carrier’s 1MC — its public address system — and his voice carried through tinny speakers rigged throughout the giant ship’s 3,000-plus spaces. Somewhere in the ship, a sailor pressed the “record” button on a smartphone. It was 11 p.m. back east. Most of Washington was asleep. 

Modly began by telling the thousands of sailors still aboard the Roosevelt that he’d wanted to come out to the ship earlier, but Crozier had “waved me off.” And then: “On Sunday night, he sent that email. And that email went out to a broad audience of people. I know that I mentioned that it was over 20” — it was in fact about a dozen — “and immediately it was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle, which published sensitive information about the material condition of a naval warship.”

Then Modly said the words about Crozier that would cost him his job as acting Navy secretary: “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 the commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose.” 

“What the fuck?” said one stunned sailor on board, in a recording of the speech that soon went public.) 

Modly went on: Crozier’s action was “a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice” and “a betrayal of trust with me, with his chain of command, with you, with the 800 to a thousand people who are your shipmates on shore right now.” (On the recording, a sailor can be heard: “He was only trying to help us.”)

“I understand you love the guy. It’s good that you love him. But you’re not required to love him,” Modly said, in a harsher echo of his Facebook message to the crew. “What your captain did was very, very wrong.”

As he reached the end of his 15-minute remarks, Modly turned the focus on himself. “There was very little upside in this decision for me. You can believe that or not…I cannot control or attempt to change whatever anger you have with me for relieving your beloved CO. If I could offer you a glimpse of the level of hatred and pure evil that has been thrown my way, my family’s way, over this decision, I would. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about me…I understand you may be angry with me for the rest of your lives. I guarantee you won’t be alone. But being angry is not your duty. Your duty is to each other, and to this ship, and to the nation that built it for you to protect them…Whatever else you may think of me, I don’t go back on my word. And when it comes to the TR, whether you hate me or not, I will never, ever, ever give up this ship and neither should you.”

A moment later, Modly ended by saying “Go Navy.” Shortly thereafter, he walked off the ship, traveled the 20 miles back to Andersen AFB, and was wheels-up in his C-37B around 2 p.m. He had spent about 14 hours on Guam, during which he penned a rebuttal to Tweed Roosevelt’s New York Times oped and spent about 30 minutes aboard the Roosevelt.

Monday, April 6

Modly’s plane landed in Honolulu at 1:45 a.m. local time. A fresh aircrew climbed aboard, the extra crew that had flown with the acting secretary from Andrews on Saturday. After refueling, the plane took off around 2:30 a.m. local, bearing the new crew, the old crew, and Modly and his three-person retinue.

Less than an hour later — 9:07 a.m. Eastern time — the conservative site Daily Caller posted the first bombshell story about Modly’s speech, along with a rough transcript. The audio recording of the speech was posted around noon by Task & Purpose, and CNN soon added a full transcript

“The leaked transcript and audio threw gasoline on an already roiling controversy over Crozier’s ouster in Washington,” Defense One’s Williams wrote

Lawmakers began to issue calls for Modly’s removal. A few minutes after noon, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va.— a retired Navy commander who oversaw the reactors aboard a Roosevelt sister ship — called upon Esper to fire him. 

The outcry reached all the way to Modly’s jet. Eight miles above Palm Springs, California, the acting secretary decided a bit of damage control was in order. He issued a statement: “…The spoken words were from the heart, and meant for [the crew]. I stand by every word I said, even regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis. Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand…” He made no apology. 

It didn’t help. Within the hour, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, added his call for Modly’s removal. 

Shortly thereafter, the New York Times posted Modly’s rebuttal to Roosevelt’s oped. Its measured arguments about his Crozier decision failed to gain purchase amid the uproar over his Roosevelt speech.

Modly landed at Andrews at 5:04 p.m. Eastern time, and headed off for two weeks of quarantine. (Back at the Roosevelt, known COVID cases had risen to 176, and 41 percent of its crew had moved ashore.)

By now, even Trump was having second thoughts on the matter. “They called him Chopper,” the president mused a little after 7 p.m., referring to Crozier’s call sign. “He was a great helicopter pilot…I know a lot about helicopters.” He told reporters at his nightly COVID press conference that sending the memo was a mistake, but added: “With all of that said, his career prior to that was very good, so I’m going to get involved and see exactly what’s going on there, because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”

At 7:37 p.m., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., issued his own call for Modly’s removal. 

In an apparent attempt to quell the blaze, Esper reportedly told Modly to apologize. About 9 p.m., the acting secretary issued his second statement of the day, this time with a dramatically different tone. “I want to apologize for my recent comments to the crew of the TR,” he wrote. “Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naive or stupid. I think, and have always believed him to be the opposite. 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 apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.”

Tuesday, April 7

It didn’t work. More senior officials called for Modly’s ouster, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California. By mid-afternoon, the news was out: Modly had submitted his resignation, and Esper accepted it.

Ten time zones to the west, the number of known COVID-19 cases aboard the Roosevelt rose to 230. It had more than doubled during Modly’s final week atop the Navy.


U.S. sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) move to off-ship berthing on April 10, 2020. / U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Liaghat


Epilogue

On April 8, USA Today reported that Modly’s hasty flight to Guam had cost taxpayers more than $243,000. As they figured it, a C-37B costs about $6,946.19 per flight hour, according to an unnamed Navy official, and the round trip to Guam took about 35 hours. 

But that’s not quite the whole story, as flight records indicate and an April 7 Navy memo confirms. Modly’s firing of Crozier, and the Navy’s choice of Sardiello, meant that two VIP jets were used to get acting SecNav and new TR CO to the ship. One airplane and its crew flew 20 hours, round trip, between Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Honolulu, while a second — with a second and third crew aboard — flew from Andrews to Guam, a roughly 36-hour round trip. That’s a total of 56 flight hours, or about $389,000. 

The use of a second crew on missions was discouraged under then-Defense Secretary James Mattis. As USA Today wrote, “A policy issued by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sought to limit officials to one plane and one crew per trip to limit cost and burden on flight crews, who have mandated rest periods.”

But just one crew wouldn’t have gotten Modly to Guam and back so quickly, wrote his chief of staff, Robert Love, in the April 7 memo. Moreover, Love argues, since two aircraft had been approved for the two missions — one apiece for Modly and Sardiello — the fact that only one aircraft had to go all the way to Guam actually represents a savings. Modly acted so quickly that he lacked the time to get a waiver to the no-two-crews policy up front, Love wrote.

In the meantime, the Roosevelt’s battle against the coronavirus goes on. As of Friday, 4,059 sailors have moved ashore into isolation accommodations. Some 660 have tested positive for COVID-19, and 3,920 negative. 

One shipmate has died, the first American active duty servicemember killed by COVID-19. Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., 41, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, died Monday at Naval Hospital Guam. His wife, also a Navy sailor, was at his side

The rest of the Navy has battened down further against the coronavirus, issuing new guidance to ships and adapting for everything from watchstanding to deployment schedules.

As for Crozier, who was due to leave isolation on Thursday, his fate and future remains an open question. Esper on Thursday said he was awaiting the results of the Navy’s investigation into the captain’s actions. Asked by Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s Today show whether he would consider reinstating Crozier as Roosevelt’s CO, Esper said, “I’ve got to keep an open mind with regard to everything.”

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