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Esper says he asked commanders for 'a heads up' on major coronavirus decisions, but denies NY Times story

Esper says he asked commanders for 'a heads up' on major coronavirus decisions, but denies NY Times story
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperISIS Task Force director resigns from Pentagon post in continued post-election purge The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia MORE on Wednesday seemed to confirm key details in a New York Times article that reported he directed commanders to notify Department of Defense (DOD) heads of any major coronavirus responses.

Esper’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee come after DOD a day earlier sharply denied that the Pentagon chief 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 surprise the White House.

Particularly in dispute is an exchange between Esper and U.S. Forces Korea head Gen. Robert Abrams, who reportedly asked about his options to protect U.S. troops against the illness.

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The Times reported that Esper responded that he wanted a heads-up before Abrams or any other commander made decisions on protecting troops, apparently so as to not to run afoul of or contradict President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE’s messaging on the illness.

But Esper disputed that account, calling it “completely wrong.”

“The commanders have all the authorities they need, and I’m providing them resources to make decisions," he said.

“My one request of [the commanders is] ... if you’re going to make a very big decision, a high-profile decision, give me a heads up, because I want to make sure that we’re integrated across the interagency.”

He added that he has been “very clear with my commanders, both privately and publicly” that the department’s priority is the protection of service members and their families, safeguarding military missions and support to the interagency.

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Testifying alongside Esper on Wednesday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyOvernight Defense: Mike Rogers slated to be top House Armed Services Republican | Defense bill hits another snag | Pentagon dinged for 0M loan to trucking company using COVID funds Israeli military instructed to prepare for Trump strike on Iran: report Top Pentagon official tests positive for COVID-19 MORE called the article a “mischaracterization.”

Milley, who was also on the video teleconference call, said Esper told Abrams, “‘Hey look, if you’re going to make the decision of imposing this emergency declaration — that he has authority to do — please give me a heads up so I can make sure everybody here in D.C. is informed.’ That’s all it was. It wasn’t any kind of thing where trying to squelch people,” Milley said.

The Trump administration has struggled to keep a clear message on the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump said last week that the virus was under control in the U.S. and that the media and Democrats were inflating the danger of it, even as administration officials warned of the disease spreading and took additional actions to contain it.