Incoming Navy Chief to Retire After Scandal

Adm. William Moran had been set to become Chief of Naval Operations in three weeks.

Breaking news from AP’s Robert Burns:

The four-star admiral set to become the Navy’s top officer on Aug. 1 will instead retire, an extraordinary downfall prompted by what Navy Secretary Richard Spencer called poor judgment regarding a professional relationship.

The sudden move by Adm. William Moran, announced Sunday, may add to the perception of turmoil in the Pentagon’s senior ranks, coming less than a month after Pat Shanahan abruptly withdrew from consideration to be defense secretary after serving as the acting secretary for six months.

Leaders of the individual military services, both civilian and uniformed, play less critical roles in national security than the defense secretary, and they are not in the chain of military command. But they are responsible for ensuring that the armed forces are trained, equipped and prepared for combat and other roles.

Moran had been vetted for promotion to the top uniformed position in the Navy, nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in May to succeed Adm. John Richardson as chief of naval operations and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Instead, Moran said in a written statement Sunday evening that he told Spencer he decided to decline his appointment as the next chief of naval operations and requested to be allowed to retire.

—“Admiral to lead Navy instead will retire; bad judgment cited

Usually, these “inappropriate relationship” is code for adultery. That’s not the case here.

“Adm. Bill Moran recently brought to my attention that over the past two years he maintained a professional relationship with an individual who was held accountable and counseled for failing to meet the values and standards of the Naval profession,” Spencer said in a written statement Sunday evening. “While I admire his faithful service and commitment to the Navy, this decision on his part to maintain that relationship has caused me to call his judgment into question. Therefore, today I accepted Adm. Moran’s request to retire.”

Senior Navy officials said Spencer learned of this relationship only after Moran’s Senate confirmation in May. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details.

Spencer provided no details about the unnamed individual, but other officials said Spencer was referring to Moran having recently taken public affairs counsel from Chris Servello, who was removed from his position as public affairs adviser to Richardson in 2017 and given a non-punitive letter of reprimand for drinking and fraternizing with junior officers during and after a December 2016 Navy Christmas party.

Servello was accused of making unwanted sexual passes while dressed as Santa at the party. No charges were filed against him. He retired from the Navy last May at the rank of commander. Servello had previously worked for Moran as a public affairs officer.

To continue taking advice from a PAO who had been ousted for unprofessional conduct is politically stupid but doesn’t strike me as a breach outweighing nearly four decades of exemplary service. Someone can simultaneously be a drunken asshole and able to provide good advice when sober. But apparently there was more going on:

Moran said his decision to decline his appointment and to instead retire was based also on what he called an open investigation into “the nature of some of my personal email correspondence over the past couple of years.” He also cited the Servello relationship, without using his name.

“To be clear,” Moran added, “my decision to maintain this relationship was in no way an endorsement or tacit approval of” the kind of misconduct that Servello was disciplined for. “I understand how toxic it can be to any team when inappropriate behavior goes unrecognized and unchecked. Every Sailor is entitled to serve in an environment free of harassment or intimidation.”

The “nature of some of my personal email correspondence” is vague, indeed, and raises more questions than it answers. The Navy will continue in good hands for the time being:

With Moran’s departure, Richardson will extend his tenure as Navy chief and Spencer said he would recommend a new candidate for nomination by Trump and consideration by the Senate. Richardson’s official retirement date is in September.

Burns reminds us that, as noted in a previous post, there’s a lot of change and vacancy in the Pentagon leadership:

Moran’s downfall adds to an unusually long list of leadership questions facing the Pentagon, which has been operating without a Senate-confirm defense secretary since Jim Mattis resigned in December 2018. There also is no confirmed deputy secretary of defense, and several other key leadership positions are about to turn over.

Mark Esper, who had been Army secretary, is now the acting secretary of defense, but Trump has not yet sent his nomination to the Senate.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford is due to step down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this fall. His intended successor, Army Gen. Mark Milley, is scheduled to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, Gen. David Berger is scheduled to take over as commandant of the Marine Corps, succeeding Gen. Robert Neller.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is due to retire on July 31. Gen. John Hyten has been nominated to succeed Selva, but he has not yet had a confirmation hearing.

Obviously, Moran was going to be the new guy, regardless, so his being replaced by a different new guy isn’t that big a deal. But Moran was the deputy, so at least promised a modicum of continuity.

As for Moran, this is a hell of a downfall over what seems on the surface like not very much. He’s gone from the pinnacle of his profession—the only perch higher than service chief is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the last several have come directly from the ranks of the chiefs—to an ignominious retirement, potentially at reduced rank.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    More and more it seems the vetting should include this question: “Were you nominated by trump?” If the answer is “Yes.” maybe that should be enough to rule them out. I swear to Dawg, if trump likes them, it’s a great big red flag that there is something seriously wrong with this person.

  2. wr says:

    “As for Moran, this is a hell of a downfall over what seems on the surface like not very much. ”

    Perhaps there’s a teensy bit more just under that surface and no one wants it to come out?

  3. MarkedMan says:

    I read the WP article on this and came away thinking “this is the old Washington Post”. By that I mean one that is a hyper-local newspaper, with the “locality” being the Federal government in this case. This story boils down to “here’s a development which we will report so insiders will see it, but we recognize the powerful don’t want us talking about it so we will put out the bare minimum and not even comment on the fact that there is a hell of a lot more going on.”

    I actually stopped reading them for well over a decade because they so carefully never passed judgement on anything that touched on politics. “Republicans say that every time taxes on the wealthy have been cut, economic prosperity for all immediately followed. Some Democrats disagreed…”

    I recognize that they are a local rag and if they were to point out the falsehoods of Republicans a bunch of readers would cancel their subscriptions. But that made it worthless as a source of anything more than gossip. Since Trump they have gotten better and I actually started reading again two years ago and subscribed this year. Hopefully this article isn’t a sign they are returning to crapitude.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: In fairness, Moran has had positions of increasing responsibility for almost four decades. I’m pretty sure he because Vice-CNO under Obama.

    @wr: Yes, that’s my suspicion as well. The story just doesn’t add up. He continued to seek advice from a competent professional who he’d trusted for years? Meh. Something in those emails must have been pretty damning.

    @MarkedMan: That’s an interesting take. I see and have always seen the NYT and WaPo as almost indistinguishable papers in terms of their coverage.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Tell me he’s not the spitting image of 50’s era actor and former Marine, Glenn Ford.

  6. Mr. Prosser says:

    @MarkedMan: Just curious, if not the WAPO then which did you read for politics?

  7. Tyrell says:

    That guy has a lot of gold on his jacket.

  8. James Joyner says:


    That guy has a lot of gold on his jacket.

    The gold buttons are standard on the Navy officer’s uniform. Gold shoulderboards are standard for flag officers (admirals). He’s a naval aviator and the wings representing those are gold. He has pretty much the standard accouterment of medals for a man of his seniority, and many of those have gold on them.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: Point taken, but all he needs is a multicolored sash and he could be standing on a dais in Bogota waving at his “adoring population.”

  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Mr. Prosser: NY Times, which is unrivaled in its ability to put eyes and ears on the ground in any location in the world, The Atlantic, and then a variety of blogs and other on line sources. As mentioned above, I have recently resubscribed to the Post, but given their audience I wouldn’t be surprised to see them return to both-siderism.

    How about you? I’m especially interested in non-crazy conservative leaning sites.

  11. Mr. Prosser says:

    @MarkedMan: I read and contrast NYT and WAPO for the East Coast political reporting but not the editorials. Since I’m fairly provincial I read the LA Times, especially for the coverage on water issues, immigration and climate change. I subscribe to Mother Jones and follow David Corn especially. I haven’t followed the Atlantic since Ta-Nehisi Coates left.

  12. steve says:

    James- There has got to be more to this story. As described I am not seeing a big scandal here. Given the prevalence of drinking in the military, which is less that when I was in 50 years ago but still exists, I doubt there is any officer who hasn’t taken advice from someone with a drinking problem at some time.


  13. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: Glenn Ford: now there was a great actor.


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