Defense Secretary Bullies Military Leaders Over Coronavirus

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President Donald Trump’s insistence on politicizing the Coronavirus situation is having reported tangible effects of tampering down efforts to keep Americans safe from the disease. According to The New York Times, during a conference call last week with military commanders from around the world — including areas where the virus has hit hard, Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged those listening not to take any substantive steps to shore up defenses against the virus without running the plan by the White House first. The point, he explained, was to stay in line with official White House messaging on the issue — and therefore, it seems, make the safety of American troops in harm’s way subservient to Trump’s ego.

The Times reports that Esper “urged American military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the coronavirus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of President Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge.” On the call, in response to Esper’s insistence, Gen. Robert B. Abrams — who commands U.S. forces stationed in South Korea — “said 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.” It shouldn’t even be a question whether or not military leaders are empowered to make critical, moment-to-moment health decisions, but here we are.

During a Monday press conference, Esper responded to the issue with vague references to his supposed commitment to the overall safety of the troops. He commented:

‘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. My number one priority remains to protect our forces and their families.’

But how does that actually play out in practice? The new report from The Times suggests that the situation, including different levels of threats from the Coronavirus, is actually more complicated than he’s letting on. Yet again, those in the president’s orbit seem to be contorting themselves to try and pad the way for his ego.

Although more may be on the way, there’s so far been just one confirmed case of the virus among active-duty members of the U.S. military. Last week, an American soldier stationed in South Korea — under General Abrams’s command — tested positive. Overall, more than 75,000 troops are currently stationed in countries with outbreaks of the virus, and that figure may continue to rise as more cases get reported.

In the U.S., as testing has finally progressed, the number of Coronavirus cases has been spiking significantly. As of Tuesday morning, more than 100 cases of the virus had been confirmed in the U.S., all of which were spread across 15 states and counting. So far, the virus has claimed six lives in the U.S., all of which unfolded in Washington state, which was one of the first to confirm cases, although other locales came soon after.

Trump, for his part, has failed to seemingly take the situation entirely seriously. He’s denounced coverage of the virus as supposedly part of a conspiracy to make him look bad — but that’s nonsense.