By the same token, Modly is too naive or stupid to be acting Navy secretary because he did not realize that his embarrassing diatribe — delivered to sailors who cheered and applauded Crozier when he left the ship — would leak to the media. Some unnamed Navy factotum had the gall to dispute the quotes attributed to Modly and to argue that his remarks were “private” — as if it’s possible to deliver private remarks over a public address system.
The whole speech was astonishing in its tone-deafness. It was full of profanity, media-bashing and self-pity. “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,” Modly said. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about me.” His complaints make clear that, in his view, it is all about him. Totally missing were any expressions of sympathy for Crozier — an outstanding aviator with decades of unblemished service who has now contracted covid-19 — or for all of the other crew members (174 and counting) battling this terrible virus. Instead, he accused Crozier of a “betrayal” of the Navy and his crew — a highly serious and completely unwarranted accusation.
We now know, thanks to the reporting of various journalists, first and foremost my plugged-in Post colleague David Ignatius, that in firing Crozier, Modly overruled the recommendation of Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In an interview with Ignatius, Modly made clear that his overriding desire was to please President Trump. He noted that his predecessor, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, had been fired for opposing Trump’s desire to reinstate with full rank a disgraced Navy SEAL who had been accused of war crimes in Iraq. “I didn’t want that to happen again,” Modly told Ignatius. “I put myself in the president’s shoes.”
Trump’s Saturday news conference, where the president ripped Crozier, made clear that Modly accurately read the president’s mood. “I thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter,” Trump said. “I mean, this isn’t a class on literature.” No, it’s a class on leadership, and both Trump and the Pentagon leadership have failed. They showed no comprehension that Crozier was acting to protect his crew in ways that senior officers — including retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander — thought was unorthodox but appropriate given the emergency aboard his ship.
But then Trump’s primary concern during the coronavirus outbreak is not protecting the country but protecting his own reputation. That is why Trump was so slow to acknowledge the coronavirus threat and now seems to spend every news conference lauding his own response while castigating supposed failures by others. By catering to the president’s worst instincts, Modly shows he does not have what it takes to lead the Navy even on a temporary basis. His lame Monday-night apology for “any pain my remarks may have caused,” which he was reportedly directed to issue by the secretary of defense, doesn’t cut it. He should suffer the same fate he inflicted on Crozier by being relieved of duty. But getting rid of Modly will only slow, not stop, the growing Trumpification of the military.
As I argue in a forthcoming Foreign Affairs article, the Defense Department has been more resistant to the president’s insidious influence than the State Department, National Security Council, Department of Homeland Security and other major government agencies. But Jim Mattis is long gone as defense secretary. His successor, Mark T. Esper, went along with Trump’s pardons for war criminals, his firing of Undersecretary of Defense John C. Rood for disagreeing with the president and his ouster of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council for testifying truthfully about Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukraine. Now Esper has been slow to address the spread of the coronavirus. He warned commanders in early March not to make decisions on the pandemic that would run afoul of the president’s Pollyannaish messaging.
Modly echoes this self-serving ethos, which is at odds with the obligations of military commanders to protect their soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines before protecting themselves or their superiors. Crozier is the first military hero of the coronavirus epidemic, and Modly is the first military villain. This distressing episode confirms that the men and women in uniform have been put at risk by an unfit commander in chief — and by political appointees who eagerly truckle to his ever-changing whims.