When it comes to protecting the health and safety of our troops both at home and around the world, nothing is more important — except for Donald Trump’s ego.
That’s the message that can be discerned from Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s mandate to Pentagon officials to refrain from making any decisions about dealing with the effects that the coronavirus pandemic may have on our service members without first getting clearance from the Trump White House.
Secretary Esper reportedly delivered the command during a video teleconference call with the commanders of combat forces around the world last week, according to The New York Times, telling them not to take any coronavirus-related actions that might “surprise” the White House or contradict President Trump’s politically-designed messaging to the American public — his misleading characterization that the rapidly spreading disease is under control due to his highly competent leadership and that any accusations to the contrary was due to a “Hoax” by his Democratic opponents.
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The New York Times reports of an exchange on the videoconference between Secretary Esper and the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, General Robert B. Abrams, whose troops live in a country that already has seen over 4,000 coronavirus infections reported. Discussing the best procedures to prevent our troops from being decimated by the virus, Secretary Esper told the commander that “he wanted advance notice before General Abrams or any other commander made decisions related to protecting their troops.”
Nothing like adding a level of bureaucracy when needing to make split-second potentially life or death decisions about the health of service members.
General Abrams reportedly pushed back by telling Esper that while “he would try to give Mr. Esper advance warning, he might have to make urgent health decisions before receiving final approval from Washington,” according to the government official briefed on the call who was the source of the details The New York Times published.
While aides to the Defense Secretary declined to comment on the video conference, one Defense Department official attributed the comments to a desire to coordinate communications to ensure that everyone in the government is aware of what the military is doing and information is funneled to the public in a coordinated manner.
In a news conference yesterday, Secretary Esper denied that anyone but local commanders would be making decisions about the safety of the troops under their jurisdiction.
“Commanders of individually affected commands have all the authority they need, and will provide specific guidance to their troops as the situation continues to evolve,” the Defense Secretary said. “My No. 1 priority remains to protect our forces and their families.”
With more than 75,000 troops stationed in countries with current coronavirus outbreaks — including South Korea, Japan, Italy, and Bahrain — the U.S. military is likely to face a health crisis far beyond the single case currently reported as having been contracted by an American soldier in South Korea.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Esper at yesterday’s news conference, said that the Pentagon was looking at and planning for “a wide variety of scenarios” and that military laboratories were assigned to develop a vaccine against the virus. Milley downplayed the effect that the virus would play on the military preparedness of our troops, noting that the vast majority of our armed forces were young and healthy and therefore less likely to come down with the most severe symptoms.
So far the Pentagon has exercised a modicum of caution by canceling joint military exercises in South Korea and in Israel due to the coronavirus crisis, but still plans a major set of exercises in Europe between now and the middle of the summer.
While it always makes sense to coordinate communications between commanders in the field and central command, Donald Trump’s minimization and politicization of the coronavirus outbreak makes Esper’s insistence on clearing all public information on the Pentagon’s response to the crisis somewhat suspect.
Given the president’s misstatements, missteps, and spin surrounding the coronavirus, as well as his general lack of truthfulness in anything he says, it will be interesting to discover how much information about the Pentagon’s plans to protect our troops will be withheld from public scrutiny as the pandemic continues to expand at its current alarming rate.
Original reporting by Eric Schmitt and