Acting Navy Secretary Resigns After Outcry Over Criticism of Virus-Stricken Crew

As the civilian leader of the Defense Department, Mr. Esper could have fired Mr. Modly himself, as he did the previous Navy secretary when the official ran afoul of Mr. Trump’s action to protect a member of the Navy SEALs accused of a war crime. But Mr. Esper wanted approval from Mr. Trump, Defense Department officials said.

The situation had reached a boiling point as a number of lawmakers said they had lost confidence in Mr. Modly; they were upset over the firing of Captain Crozier. But Mr. Modly’s decision to then fly 8,000 miles to Guam to deliver a 15-minute tirade at the crew infuriated members of Congress, military families and even senior Defense Department civilians and military officers.

Senior lawmakers praised Mr. Modly’s resignation after it became public on Tuesday.

“Mr. Modly mishandled the situation,” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. He called Mr. Modly’s actions “inappropriate for the leader of the U.S. Navy at any time, particularly in a crisis” and warned that the “new leadership of the Navy must do better in leading and protecting sailors, Marines and their families in this unprecedented crisis.”

Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, expressed frustration with the turnover in Navy leadership. He warned that he would be seeking answers to questions “about the events that led us to where we are today, from who made the decision to dock the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt in Vietnam at the height of the Covid-19 crisis there, to the support being given to unit commanding officers by Navy leadership.”

Inside the Pentagon, officials had expressed anger over what they had characterized as Mr. Modly’s lack of respect for the enlisted rank and file, particularly in the middle of a pandemic.

During his 30-minute visit to the Roosevelt on Monday, Mr. Modly complained that Captain Crozier’s letter for help had caused a political headache for Guam. He also rebuked the crew for having cheered the captain as he left the ship.

As audio of Mr. Modly’s remarks spread across the military ranks and on social media, the acting Navy secretary first doubled down on Monday. “I stand by every word I said,” he said in a statement that the Navy emailed to reporters.

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