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Pentagon chief warned overseas commanders not to surprise White House on coronavirus measures: report

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperActing Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia Overnight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition MORE asked overseas military commanders to not to make any coronavirus-related decisions that could surprise the White House or contradict President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE’s statements on the illness, The New York Times reported.

Esper gave the directive last week during a video teleconference call with U.S. combatant commanders based overseas, telling the military leaders that they should check back with the Pentagon before making any moves to help shield U.S. forces from COVID-19, defense officials told The Times.

The Trump administration has sought to ease concerns about the virus, with the president insisting last week that the virus is under control.

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As of Monday, there are more than 100 known coronavirus cases in 15 states, with six deaths in Washington state. 

Trump has since changed his messaging, saying that health officials expect more cases but that there was no reason to panic. 

The commander in chief has also sought to downplay the virus’s impact on financial markets and claimed on Monday night that “Washington Democrats are trying to politicize the coronavirus.”

But in the Defense Department, military leaders are scrambling to make sure their troops are protected.

In the past week the department has canceled a joint military exercise with South Korea and in Israel, restricted access to public areas at Army installations in Italy, ordered a stop to nonessential travel in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, and directed all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days.

Though only one active-duty soldier has tested positive for the virus in South Korea, more than 75,000 U.S. forces are in countries that are experiencing outbreaks.

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During the combatant command teleconference, U.S. Forces Korea head Gen. Robert Abrams asked about his options to protect U.S. troops against the illness.

Esper responded that he wanted a heads-up before Abrams or any other commander made decisions on protecting troops.

Esper told reporters at a Monday press briefing that “at the end of last week, I did a deep dive with DOD civilian and military leadership, including all the service secretaries, the [Combatant Command] commanders, to ensure the entire department is equipped for all scenarios: short and long-term, domestic and international.

He added that commanders are in charge of decisions on troop safety overseas. 

“Commanders of individually affected geographic commands have all the authority they need and we'll provide specific guidance to their troops as the situation continues to evolve,” Esper said.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, meanwhile, said the Pentagon was preparing for “a wide variety of scenarios” related to the coronavirus.

“We look at best-case, worse-case, and the middle-case, sort of thing. Pandemic is the worst case,” Milley said alongside Esper on Monday.

Milley also said that U.S. government military laboratories are working to develop a vaccine for coronavirus.

“Our military research labs are working feverishly around the horn here to try to come up with a vaccine. So we’ll see how that develops over the next couple of months," he said.