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Pentagon calls NYT article on Esper and coronavirus response 'dangerous and inaccurate'

The Pentagon issued a sharp rebuttal Tuesday to a New York Times article saying Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Supreme Court to hear case on diversion of Pentagon funds to border wall | Biden campaign cutting retired general from ad after objection | Trump's arms control talks with Russia hit wall Biden campaign removing retired general from ad after his complaint Overnight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy MORE directed commanders to notify the Department of Defense (DOD) of their coronavirus responses to avoid surprising the White House, calling it a “dangerous and inaccurate mischaracterization.”

The newspaper reported Tuesday that Esper, during a video teleconference call last week, asked U.S. combatant commanders based overseas to check in with Pentagon leadership before making any coronavirus-related decisions that could contradict President Trump’s messaging on the illness.

The DOD disputed that account, saying Esper instead directed commanders to take all force health protection measures and then notify their chain of command when actions are taken “so that DOD leadership can inform the interagency — including [Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Homeland Security], the State Department, and the White House — and the American people,” top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

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“During this video teleconference which I attended, he explicitly did not direct them to ‘clear’ their force health decisions in advance — that is a dangerous and inaccurate mischaracterization.”

When reached for comment, Times spokesman Ari Isaacman Bevacqua said, "We stand by the accuracy of our reporting."

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE has defended his administration's response to the virus as the Pentagon has moved quickly to ensure its forces and personnel are better protected against its spread.

Trump insisted last week that the virus was under control in the U.S. and that the media and Democrats were inflating the danger of the illness.

There are more than 100 known coronavirus cases in more than a dozen states, with nine deaths — all in Washington state.

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“The Department of Defense is working in lockstep with our interagency partners and to ensure a swift, effective, and transparent approach to addressing this virus,” Hoffman said Tuesday.

He added that in response to the virus, Esper has given combatant commanders “the clear and unequivocal authority to take any and all actions necessary to ensure the health and safety of U.S. service members, civilian DOD personnel, families and dependents.”

Updated at 3:46 p.m.