After a controversy of his own making forced the resignation of the Navy’s acting secretary this week, Pentagon officials are lobbying lawmakers to confirm a new permanent secretary for the service as soon as possible.
But with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic slowing routine work on Capitol Hill, it’s unclear when that move could be completed.
Last fall, following the sudden forced resignation of then Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, President Donald Trump announced that he would tap retired Rear Adm. Kenneth Braithwaite (the current U.S. ambassador to Norway) for the top Navy post.
He also announced that Thomas Modly, then the Navy under secretary, would serve as the acting official until Braithwaite’s confirmation.
Deemed an astute questioner, a good listener and innately credible ― Braithwaite is thought to have the skills needed to manage the Navy’s rough transition and beyond. He also has embraced much of the rhetoric coming out of the White House.
Modly stayed in that role until Tuesday, when he resigned following intense criticism for his firing of the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt after his plea for help dealing with coronavirus prevention went public. Modly called Capt. Brett Crozier “too stupid or too naive” to lead the aircraft carrier.
The resignation prompted a new round of concerns from lawmakers about leadership upheavals at the Pentagon, which in the last nine months has already seen a new Defense Secretary, Deputy Defense Secretary, Air Force Secretary and Army Secretary sworn in.
Politico reported on Thursday that Defense Secretary Mark Esper in recent days has pushed senators to speed up the confirmation of Braithwaite to help stabilize Navy leadership as soon as possible.
Despite Trump’s public announcement of Braithwaite’s new assignment last fall, officials from the Senate Armed Services Committee didn’t formally receive his nominating paperwork until March 2.
That was just a few weeks before all public hearings on Capitol Hill were postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus threat, which has already killed more than 14,000 Americans.
In recent days, committee officials have experimented with “paper hearings” where witness statements and lawmaker questions are posted online in lieu of in-person interrogations by senators. But on Thursday, those remote hearings were put on hold after Senate staffers said the work involved placed too much of a burden on defense officials as they respond to public health issues.
Per Senate rules, the committee must meet in person to vote out nominations, and the Senate must be in session for the committee to report the nomination to the floor. After that, the full Senate can voice vote out nominations if no senators object.
Modly’s resignation offer comes less than a day after numerous Democratic members of Congress called for his firing over his handling of the dismissal of the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.
A committee spokesperson said so far no decisions have been on timing or format for any upcoming nomination hearings. Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has said Braithwaite’s nomination and that of the next the Department of Defense Inspector General will be to committee top priorities in coming weeks.
Even if staffers can work out the logistics of a nomination hearing with the coronavirus complications, Braithwaite’s nomination could face problems in the Senate because of disputed past work with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which collected social media users’ personal information without their consent.
For now, Under Secretary of the Army James McPherson is serving as the latest acting Secretary of the Navy.