WASHINGTON — Pressure mounted Tuesday to remove the acting Navy secretary, presenting a stark choice for Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper: persuade President Trump that his appointment to the Navy’s top civilian job, Thomas B. Modly, is no longer fit to serve, or allow a controversy ignited by Mr. Modly to engulf the entire military.
Mr. Esper has carefully followed the administration line since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, including urging military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the virus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of Mr. Trump’s confident messaging on the growing health challenge.
But Mr. Modly may have taken Mr. Esper’s warning too far when he harshly rebuked the crew and captain of a nuclear aircraft carrier.
Mr. Modly fired a respected Navy captain after he wrote a letter imploring officials for help as the coronavirus spread across the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Modly then flew to Guam and berated the carrier’s crew. With those actions, Mr. Modly turned what could have been a straightforward health matter into a political crisis.
Even Mr. Trump, who initially backed Mr. Modly’s handling of the issue, seemed to be having second thoughts on Monday. “I may look into it,” the president told reporters, “from the standpoint that something should be resolved.”
The president liked the dismissal of Captain Crozier and had told aides before the captain was removed from command that the writing of the letter looked “weak.” Mr. Trump is less thrilled with the controversy that has followed, aides said, but the president does not appear motivated to bring in yet another acting Navy secretary.
Mr. Esper, as the civilian head of the Defense Department, can fire Mr. Modly, as he did in November when the prior Navy secretary ran afoul of Mr. Trump over the president’s action to protect a Navy SEAL accused of a war crime. But Mr. Esper will not do so without getting approval from Mr. Trump, Defense Department officials said.
The issue has reached a boiling point as a number of lawmakers say they have lost confidence in Mr. Modly. They were mad last week when he fired Captain Brett E. Crozier after the captain wrote his letter to Navy officials asking for more help to fight coronavirus aboard the Roosevelt. But Mr. Modly’s decision to then fly the 8,000 miles to Guam, where the ship is docked, and deliver a 15-minute tirade at the crew has infuriated members of Congress, military families and even senior Defense Department civilians and military officers.
“Acting Secretary Modly’s decision to address the sailors on the Roosevelt and personally attack Captain Crozier shows a tone-deaf approach more focused on personal ego than one of the calm, steady leadership we so desperately need in this crisis,” said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington. “I no longer have confidence in Acting Secretary Modly’s leadership of the Navy and believe he should be removed from his position.”
Mr. Smith is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which has oversight responsibility over the military services.
“Our sailors deserve better. The only way to restore confidence in Naval leadership is for the immediate termination of the Acting @SECNAV by @EsperDoD,” tweeted Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat who is also on the committee.
Active-duty military personnel would not be expected to openly criticize their civilian leadership. But retired officers were weighing in.
“ACTING SEC NAVY MUST RESIGN,” tweeted retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. “This is the worst judgment by a defense official possible. Terrible signal to sailors.”
Inside the Pentagon, many officials said that they do not see how Mr. Modly can continue as acting secretary. Officials expressed anger over what they characterized as his lack of respect for the enlisted rank and file, particularly now, in the middle of a health pandemic.
During his 30-minute visit to the Roosevelt on Monday, Mr. Modly called Captain Crozier either “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.” He complained that Captain Crozier’s letter for help caused a political headache for Guam. And he berated the crew for cheering their captain as he left the ship.
As audio of Mr. Modly’s remarks spread across the military ranks and throughout social media more broadly, the acting Navy secretary first doubled down on Monday. “I stand by every word I said,” he said in a statement the Navy emailed to reporters.
By Monday night, though, after the chorus calling for his removal grew and Mr. Trump indicated he was going to look into the matter, Mr. Modly had changed his tune. “I want to apologize to the Navy for my recent comments to the crew of the TR,” he said in a statement. “I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid.”
Mr. Smith, the House committee chairman, said on Tuesday that he was not swayed by Mr. Modly’s late-night apology.
“After that speech on the carrier, I just don’t see how he can lead the Navy,” Mr. Smith said in a conference call with reporters. “He will have a heck of a time getting the confidence of the Navy back.”
Military officials also appeared worried about the damage Mr. Modly’s visit had done to the morale of the Roosevelt’s crew.
On Tuesday, Vice Adm. William R. Merz, a top Navy official for the Pacific region, paid his own visit to the Roosevelt in Guam. He addressed the crew over the ship’s loudspeaker before entering one of the hangar bays where he took questions from the crew — something Mr. Modly did not do Monday — for more than an hour and a half.
It was a welcome change from Mr. Modly’s arrival, a crew member said, adding that Admiral Merz plans to stay aboard for several days.
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.