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Acting U.S. Navy secretary offers to resign over handling of coronavirus-hit carrier






WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly has offered his resignation following criticism of his handling of a crisis involving the captain of a coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier, two U.S. officials and a congressional aide told Reuters on Tuesday.

It was unclear whether Defense Secretary Mark Esper accepted Modly's resignation offer. Democrats in Congress had called for his removal, citing a loss of confidence.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Modly had offered his resignation after meeting with Esper earlier today.

A third official, who also declined to be identified, said that the plan was for Acting Undersecretary of the Army James McPherson to succeed Modly.

Esper's office and the Navy declined to comment.

Modly's offer follows the public disclosure of a surprise speech he made on Monday to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, in which he defended his decision to fire their commander, Captain Brett Crozier, and ridiculed him.

Crozier was revered by his crew for writing a letter that leaked publicly calling for stronger action from the Navy to help stem an outbreak of coronavirus infections aboard his ship.

Earlier on Tuesday, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi added her voice to calls for Modly's removal.

"Sadly, Acting Secretary Modly's actions and words demonstrate his failure to prioritize the force protection of our troops," Pelosi said in a statement.

A fellow Democrat, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, had already called for Modly's removal.

Smith told reporters on a conference call it was hard to imagine Navy members having respect for Modly, after his remarks about Crozier.

Crozier, who took command of the Theodore Roosevelt in November, wrote a four-page letter describing a bleak situation aboard the carrier as more of his crew began falling ill.

He was relieved of his position after his letter became public, prompting an outcry. Modly made a surprise address to the ship's crew on Monday, saying Crozier was either "too naive or too stupid" to command the carrier, heightening the controversy.

Modly apologized on Monday, but Pelosi and Smith said that was not enough to overcome what they described as his highly inappropriate comments.

His apology did little to mollify the crew on the carrier.

"He said what he said and nobody is going to forget it," a sailor on the carrier told Reuters.

As of Tuesday, 230 of about 5,000 personnel on the Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for the coronavirus.