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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 EsperThe perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes Acting 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 MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenInequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation 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 HironoHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (Hawaii), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden announces all-female White House communications team Biden to nominate Neera Tanden, Cecilia Rouse to economic team: WSJ Memo to Biden: Go big — use the moment to not only rebuild but to rebuild differently MORE (Calif.), Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition DOJ investigation into Epstein deal ends without recommended action MORE (Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySupreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising Trump supporters demonstrate across the country following Biden-Harris win Merkley wins reelection in Oregon Senate race MORE (Ore.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (Ohio), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers On The Money: Push for student loan forgiveness puts Biden in tight spot | Trump is wild card as shutdown fears grow | Mnuchin asks Fed to return 5 billion in unspent COVID emergency funds Grassley, Wyden criticize Treasury guidance concerning PPP loans MORE (Ore.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (Minn.) and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally 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.

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“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