The trick to surviving in Donald Trump's administration is being a shameless toady, willing at any moment to lavish praise on the president. But acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly found that staying on Trump's good side can be impossibly tricky. He resigned Tuesday in the apparent realization that his strenuous self-abasement was not enough to appease the president.
Last week, Modly relieved the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who had emailed higher-ups pleading for the evacuation of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier because of an outbreak of COVID-19. After the letter was leaked to the press, Modly sacked Capt. Brett Crozier for showing "extremely poor judgment" and letting the situation "overwhelm his ability to act professionally."
Then the secretary flew to Guam to deliver a denunciation of Crozier, whose own sailors had cheered him as he left the ship. Modly boarded the carrier and used its public address system to inform the crew that the captain was "was either too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this."
Why would Modly go to such trouble and use such inflammatory language to excoriate an officer who was trying to protect his personnel — and to rebuke the sailors who thought highly of him? Probably because Trump had expressed dissatisfaction with Crozier, and Modly wanted to demonstrate his utter devotion to the president.
The fate of his predecessor was not lost on him. Richard Spencer burned his bridge to Trump after a military court voted to convict Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who had been charged with murder, on a single count of posing with an enemy corpse. Trump was furious to see Gallagher held accountable, and when Spencer tried to dissuade him from intervening, Trump showed him the door.
The lesson was that it's best to monitor the president's wishes and make sure they are fulfilled. By traveling halfway around the world to denounce Crozier (and the news media), Modly must have figured he would cement the president's loyalty.
What he failed to account for is the mercurial nature of his boss. On Monday, Trump described Modly's speech as "rough," reported hearing "good things" about Crozier and said, "I'm going to get involved and see exactly what's going on there, because I don't want to destroy somebody for having a bad day."
By Monday evening, Modly was scrambling to show that Trump's every wish is his command. Having lambasted the captain in a transparent attempt to make points with the president, he quickly retracted his words in another transparent attempt to make points with the president.
Modly issued an extraordinary statement apologizing not only to the Navy but also to "Captain Crozier, his family, and the entire crew of the Theodore Roosevelt for any pain my remarks may have caused." He said, "I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naive nor stupid. I think, and always believed him to be the opposite."
It would be nice to believe that Modly had reflected on his intemperate response, realized his error and concluded that he had a solemn duty to make amends. But his remarks on the Theodore Roosevelt were not made without forethought. He had castigated Crozier days before, accusing him of failing to show "sober and professional judgment under pressure."
We were left with two possible explanations for Modly's gross mistake. The first is that — how should I put it? — he let the situation overwhelm his ability to act professionally. Having accused Crozier of cracking under pressure, Modly may have cracked under pressure.
The other possibility is that Modly saw he had misinterpreted Trump's feelings and decided that prostrating himself before the dismissed captain was his best hope. He knows from the experience of other administration subordinates that to differ with the president, even unintentionally, is usually fatal. So he may have decided — like so many other Trump aides — that humiliation was preferable to banishment.
It wasn't enough. Fawning subservience is necessary to stay in Trump's good graces, but it didn't save former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price or former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Modly apparently saw he had no future in this administration.
His abrupt departure confirms what was obvious from the start: If you work for Trump, humiliation is certain. But banishment is always possible.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.