Esper shoots back at Senate Democrats’ criticism of coronavirus response

Defense Secretary Mark Esper shot back Tuesday at a group of Democratic senators who last week panned him for what they described as a failure to sufficiently respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am very disappointed that members of Congress, particularly those who sit on the Armed Services Committee and who receive weekly updates from us, would write a letter that includes a number of misleading, false or inaccurate statements,” Esper said during a press briefing at the Pentagon.

Esper added the department provides lawmakers with “complete, accurate and timely information,” and said he has spoken to the chairmen and ranking members of the Armed Services committees multiple times.

“We recognize Congress has an important oversight role, but it should be an informed oversight role, and we are committed to doing that to address any members’ concerns,” he said. 

Esper was responding to a letter from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a Senate Armed Services Committee member, and nine Democratic senate colleagues in which they expressed “grave concern” about how the Pentagon has handled the crisis. Fellow Armed Services members Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were among the co-signers.

“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.”

The eight-page letter cited a laundry list of examples, including the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, Esper pushing decisions on implementing social distancing and other guidance to local commanders, varied decisions across services such as the Marine Corps’ decision not to relax grooming standards while other services do and the decision to stop publicly releasing installation-specific data on infections.

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.

Esper said the department “will be responding” officially to the letter, but in the meantime listed several grievances during Tuesday’s press briefing.

“I don’t think it really recognizes all the Department of Defense has done, particularly at a time we have 62,000 Americans out there on the streets of America who are in many cases risking their own health to protect the American people,” Esper said, referencing assistance the U.S. military is providing to local communities responding to the coronavirus.

The letter does address the assistance U.S. troops have provided to local governments fighting the coronavirus, but Esper argued “the statements in that letter don’t match what I’m hearing from the governors,” who he said have thanked him for the Pentagon’s help.

He also said the senators’ criticism about not disclosing installation-specific data is “simply wrong” because the information is being shared with state, local and federal authorities.

In late March, Esper ordered military bases and combatant commands to stop publicly releasing coronavirus case numbers, citing operational security concerns. 

Esper also knocked the senators for citing a March article in the New York Times that said he told 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, saying the story had been “debunked multiple times.”

The Pentagon previously called the article a “dangerous and inaccurate mischaracterization,” though Esper has said he told commanders to “give me a heads up” on decisions to “make sure that we’re integrated across the interagency.” The Times has stood by the story.

Esper also pushed back on the letter’s criticism of his delegation of many decisions to local commanders, calling that “standard military practice that goes back decades.”

“To somehow suggest that the guidance went out to people that don’t know how to implement it is just ridiculous,” Esper said, highlighting the “extensive” medical staffs of service secretaries and commanders. 

As of Tuesday, the Pentagon reported a total of 7,526 coronavirus cases, including 4,967 in the military. A hundred service members have been hospitalized, 1,844 have recovered and two have died.

Esper argued the numbers for service members “fare very well against our civilian counterparts.”

“So for some folks to continue to peddle this narrative is just troubling,” Esper added. “This is how we operate. This is how you are more successful, and this is one of the reasons why I credit our numbers being so low at this time.”

Tags Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Mark Esper Mazie Hirono

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