Senate Democrats pan Esper for 'failed' coronavirus response

Senate Democrats pan Esper for 'failed' coronavirus response
© Greg Nash

Ten Senate Democrats are expressing “grave concern” about how the Pentagon has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter Monday to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief defends Milley after Trump book criticism | Addresses critical race theory | Top general says Taliban has 'strategic momentum' in war The Biden administration and Tunisia: Off to a good start Overnight Defense: Navy pulls plug on 0 million railgun effort | Esper defends Milley after Trump attacks | Navy vet charged in Jan. 6 riot wants trial moved MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate confirms Biden's Air Force secretary Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Will Pence primary Trump — and win? MORE (D-Mass.) and nine colleagues accused the Pentagon of a “failure to adequately respond” to the ongoing crisis.

“Civilian leadership of the department has failed to act sufficiently quickly, and has often prioritized readiness at the expense of the health of servicemembers and their families,” the senators wrote. “This failure has adversely affected morale, and, despite the department’s best intentions, undermined readiness.”

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The letter was co-signed by Democratic Sens. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats criticize FBI's handling of tip line in Kavanaugh investigation Biden's misinformation crackdown spotlights partisan divide on content reform Number of nonwhite Democratic Senate staffers ticks up from 2020 MORE (Hawaii), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Will Pence primary Trump — and win? Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law MORE (Calif.), Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayTech executives increased political donations amid lobbying push Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up Sunday shows preview: As delta variant spreads, US leaders raise concerns MORE (Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Lawmakers urge Biden to make 'bold decisions' in nuclear review MORE (Ore.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe MORE (Ohio), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan MORE (Ore.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBiden signals tough stance on tech with antitrust picks Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Competition laws could be a death knell for startup mergers and acquisitions MORE (Minn.) and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Olympics medals made of mashed up smartphones Lawmakers urge Biden to make 'bold decisions' in nuclear review MORE (Mass.).

As of Monday, the Pentagon reported a total of 6,568 cases of COVID-19, including 4,213 service members.

The Pentagon has come under fire for weeks over whether it has done enough to protect service members from the virus, with critics accusing Esper of acting too slowly and punting too many decisions.

Esper and other officials have repeatedly defended their response, asserting their top priority is the health and safety of their personnel. Esper has also said it would not be feasible for him to issue departmentwide guidance on social distancing because of varied circumstances across the military, such as cramped quarters in a submarine or tank. He said he trusts commanders to make the best decisions for their situations while taking every reasonable precaution.

In a six-paragraph statement, the Pentagon show back at the senators, arguing their letter "cherry-picked false and repeatedly debunked assertions."

"As the Secretary has restated time and time again, our top priorities are our service members, their families and all our civilian and contract personnel, and continuing our national security missions to include help the American people confront this crisis," chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that this letter has cherry-picked false and repeatedly debunked assertions that do not reflect reality. We are proud of the work we have done leading the fight against COVID-19 – and the American people and Members of Congress should be proud as well."

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Hoffman held Esper has "made a clear, unambiguous decision to provide constant guidance to senior civilian and military leaders," including issuing force health protection guidance starting in late January, but reiterated that "diverse missions have diverse levels of flexibility."

"While we are not above criticism, this letter does not even remotely accurately reflect our record of action against the coronavirus and the great lengths we have gone to protect our people," he added. "We look forward to continuing to discuss the lessons learned from this outbreak and our path forward with our highly informed and engaged oversight committees.”

In their eight-page letter, the Democrats argued that while “local commanders know their units and operating environments better than anyone in the Pentagon, they are not public health experts.”

“And they are now left to make decisions they should never have to make,” they wrote. “This expectation is even more unrealistic given that commanders have not been resourced to make these decisions; in fact, widespread testing still remains unavailable as a way for military commanders to assess the threat. Due to the lack of resources and the lack of guidance, the Department’s response has been disjointed and slow, risking the health of servicemembers and their families.”

The senators highlighted the case of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where 955 sailors have active cases of coronavirus and 14 others have recovered. The outbreak turned into a political firestorm after the ship’s captain wrote a letter pleading for help and was fired when it leaked to the press.

While it is unclear whether the virus got onto the aircraft during a port visit to Vietnam or during continued flight operations, the senators wrote, “This failure to act to prevent infection resulted in an unfortunate and counterproductive breakdown in the chain of command.”

They also pointed to Esper’s April 16 comments on NBC's “Today” show about the outbreak on the Roosevelt as showing a “dangerous misunderstanding of the nature” of the virus. In the interview, Esper said the Roosevelt “revealed a new dynamic of this virus” that it can be transmitted by asymptomatic people.

“But asymptomatic transmission was suspected as early as February and evidence continued to build throughout February and March that asymptomatic transmission had occurred. By mid-March it was extremely obvious,” they wrote.

The senators also slammed Esper for a “tentative approach” they said caused “a series of contradictory decisions” such as the Marines Corps’s decision not to relax grooming standards even as other services do.

“Predictably, the results are large groups of Marines standing in line for haircuts without masks and not abiding by social distancing guidelines,” they wrote.

Recalling a mid-April news conference where Esper said the Marines should suspend haircuts while Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley defended the continued haircuts, the senators argued that “this level of miscommunication on even relatively simple matters indicates that dysfunctional decision-making starts at the top of the department.”

The senators also slammed the deployment of 540 troops to the southern border in early April for what the Pentagon said was help for the Department of Homeland Security to secure against potentially coronavirus-positive migrants.

“Given the fact that as of the same day, there were already more than 213,144 confirmed cases of coronavirus already inside the United States, it strains elementary logic to see how this deployment serves your own stated goal of protecting the troops,” they wrote.

The letter asked for answers to about a dozen questions by May 11, including how the department plans to address the pandemic while continuing operations and protecting troops’ health, whether the department knows how many service members actually have the virus given asymptomatic cases, and what the department’s plan is for long-term mitigation in the event of future outbreaks.

“The Department’s civilian leadership can and must do more to ensure the health of servicemembers and their families,” they wrote. “Immediate and aggressive guidance – from the top – is necessary to protect the health, morale, and readiness of servicemembers and their families. You can and must do better and we hope that you will act quickly in this regard.”

Updated at 4:53 p.m. April 28