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 EsperCORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report Female generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report Overnight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command 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.


“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 TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 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.


“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.