Trump’s wobbly coronavirus response leaves Pentagon playing catch-up

By Lara Seligman

The Pentagon and the White House, in the weeks leading up to the president’s national emergency declaration on Friday, quarreled over the response to the coronavirus outbreak that was sweeping the country.

Defense Department leaders urged measures such as restricting troop travel in order to contain the virus. But other administration officials pushed back, arguing against any “rash” steps that could have political ramifications and economic impact, defense officials told POLITICO.

It wasn't until President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13 that leaders began to coalesce around a strategy. Trump’s comments served as a “green light” for DoD leaders to take more aggressive steps such as providing medical equipment, putting field hospitals on alert and making preparations to dispatch the military’s twin hospital ships to virus hotspots, said the defense official.

“We’re muddling through,” one defense official said.

This story is based on interviews with half a dozen current and former defense and administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the last few weeks of sensitive discussions.

From the start of the crisis, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has given his deputies — the service chiefs, combatant commanders and civilian leaders — flexibility to issue guidance to a mammoth force of almost 3 million people, including 1.3 million active-duty military and their families. And in recent days, senior Pentagon officials advised Esper to talk more about the Pentagon’s efforts to protect all Americans — not just military personnel — in his public comments, according to a former administration official.

Esper obliged, making appearances on Fox News, CNN and in the White House briefing room to lay out a number of steps the department is taking to support the coronavirus response.

“I want to assure all of your viewers that the United States military remains ready and capable of defending the American people, protecting the nation and safeguarding our interests abroad,” Esper said on Fox News on Tuesday.

But absent clear direction from the White House, the Pentagon’s initial internal response to the crisis, was ad hoc. In recent days, officials have scrambled to prepare the Navy's hospital ships, USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, to help relieve pressure on civilian hospitals, defense officials said. Despite Trump’s assertion that the ships are “in tip-top shape,” the Comfort, homeported in Norfolk, Va., has been in pierside maintenance since December after returning from a five-month deployment and will not get underway until April 2. Meanwhile the Mercy, based out of San Diego, will be able to launch to its West Coast destination, either in California or Washington State, on Monday.

Defense Department spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman pushed back on the notion that the Pentagon’s initial response wasn't carefully planned.

"The Department has been planning and executing against the Coronavirus since the first cases were reported in January,” Hoffman said. “What is inaccurately characterized as an 'ad hoc' approach is instead a deliberate effort to balance mitigation and prevention with the need to defend our nation."

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

In its efforts to get the Comfort underway as soon as possible, the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, which is responsible for the hospital ships, has been forced to defer "a small amount" of scheduled work on the vessels until a later date, a Navy spokesperson said.

Guidance on domestic and international travel for troops also trickled out in a disjointed fashion over the past few weeks. U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East and Afghanistan, canceled all leave and liberty travel for U.S. troops serving in the region on Feb. 27. On the same day, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command postponed a major exercise with South Korea, and the Navy ordered all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days in order to monitor sailors for any symptoms.

But DoD-wide travel restrictions did not go into effect until March 11, when Esper banned movement of DoD civilians and families traveling to, from or through “Level 3” locations — such as South Korea, Iran and Italy — for 60 days.

In some ways the Department of Defense has been ahead of the curve on the coronavirus crisis. Even before the first cases were reported in South Korea on Feb. 2, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea began enforcing strict measures in January, including testing, self-isolation and social distancing.

The Defense Department has also been conducting regular, sometimes twice-daily, press briefings on the crisis in recent days, sending senior officials such as Esper, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel and others to the podium to talk about the department’s response. This is a sharp contrast to the State Department, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been criticized for a lack of transparency.

But until this week, department leaders were not always on the same page. While Esper believes commanders and service leaders are in the best position to make major decisions for their forces, he has given explicit instructions to those officials that any major decision needs to be communicated up the chain of command, officials say.

After being blindsided on multiple occasions over the past few weeks, Esper has had to intervene at lower levels to ensure the department presents a unified front, three current and former defense officials tell POLITICO.

“It comes back to: we shouldn’t learn about these through media channels or them becoming public,” said one defense official.“But the last thing we want to do is hamstring those commanders.”

After the Army on March 8 preempted DoD in ordering a halt to the movement of troops and their families into and out of Italy and South Korea, Esper was forced to step in, two defense officials said. The secretary stressed to Army leadership the need to keep him and the Joint Chiefs informed of any new guidance, according to the officials. The Pentagon on Monday banned all domestic and international travel through at least May 11.

Esper intervened once more over the weekend after the Army considered freezing basic training for new recruits amid concern about virus spread, according to three defense officials. The Washington Post first reported the Army's move. Esper met with the leaders of the armed services on Monday to discuss the issue, ultimately deciding to continue basic training while taking precautionary measures, one of the defense officials said.

Hoffman noted the complexity of the issue, saying “the Coronavirus situations in the more than 150 countries DoD has forces around the world are different, have progressed at different paces and require different solutions."

"That is exactly why Secretary Esper has delegated the authority to issue enhanced force protection guidance to local commanders," he said.

Since Monday, Esper and the rest of the department have spent a good bit of time in front of cameras. Speaking alongside Trump on Wednesday, Esper said that in addition to preparing the hospital ships, which are equipped with 1,000 beds each, he has alerted field and expeditionary hospitals to be prepared to deploy as needed to support the response. These capabilities are designed for trauma and other combat injuries, Esper stressed, and will be used to relieve pressure on civilian hospitals treating coronavirus victims.

Separately, the Pentagon has opened its 16 certified coronavirus testing labs to test non-DoD personnel; will make available up to 5 million respirator masks and other personal protective equipment from its own reserves; and will distribute up to 2,000 deployable ventilators to the Department of Health and Human Services, Esper said.

“We have plans in place. We've been implementing them now for several weeks. And we're also wanting to lean forward and support again, the whole government approach to assist the American people,” Esper said on Fox.