Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the Navy's top civilian leader to apologize for a controversial and divisive speech he gave to a ship's crew after firing their commanding officer, Military.com has confirmed.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly was directed to issue a statement about his recent comments on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, a defense official said. That prompted a sudden reversal just hours after Modly had doubled and tripled down on his statements, saying he was standing by every word.
Modly made headlines Monday after flying to Guam, where he addressed the Roosevelt's crew days after removing their commanding officer from his position. Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved for sending a letter pleading for help in dealing with fast-spreading novel coronavirus cases among his crew.
The letter was sent through unclassified channels to several people outside Crozier's chain of command, prompting Modly to tell the crew that their former leader was "too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this." That was after videos showed hundreds of Crozier's crew members applauding for him and chanting his name as he left the carrier following his relief.
CNN first reported Tuesday that Modly was told to apologize for his remarks. The directive came from Esper's office.
Modly issued his apology Monday night, less than 12 hours after the acting secretary defended his speech.
"Let me be clear, I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid," he said in a statement. "... I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused. I also want to apologize directly to Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused."
Sailors on the Roosevelt have spoken out about Modly's speech. In a recording of the address, obtained by Military.com, people can be heard swearing in response to Modly's comments about Crozier being "naïve" or "stupid."
One crew member told Task & Purpose on Monday that Modly showing up and making that speech after firing their captain was "like disrespecting someone who has passed away at their wake."
Modly's leaked speech caught the attention of more than the defense secretary. Lawmakers have called for his removal, and President Donald Trump on Monday indicated he might intervene in the situation.
It's not clear whether Esper ordering Modly to apologize came before or after Trump's remarks.
Being relieved of command is typically a career-ending situation for military officers that will prevent them from being promoted to the next rank.
"[Crozier] made a mistake," Trump said. "And maybe we're going to make that mistake not destroy his life."