Esper escalates war of words with Warren, Democratic senators

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee pushing back on criticism from 10 other senators of his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter largely echoes comments Esper made at a press briefing earlier this week, but sending it steps up the Pentagon’s efforts to push back on criticism of its coronavirus response.

Esper ripped the senators in the letter over what he said were “false and misleading” statements about the response.

“The Department of Defense (DoD) is committed to providing accurate and timely information in support of Congressional oversight,” Esper wrote in a letter to Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “This is why we are providing weekly updates by senior DoD officials to Congress. Recently, however, some members have leveled false or misleading assertions regarding the department’s response to the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, despite these briefings. I want to ensure you have the facts.”

“I can confidently state, informed by my service leaders and combatant commanders, the U.S. military is maintaining a high state of readiness and the morale of the force remains strong,” Esper added in the letter dated Thursday.

At issue is a letter sent to Esper from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a Senate Armed Services Committee member, and nine of her Democratic senate colleagues in which they expressed “grave concern” about how the Pentagon has handled the coronavirus 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.”

Fellow Armed Services members Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were among the letter’s co-signers, as were fellow former Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

The eight-page letter cited several examples, including the coronavirus outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and Esper pushing decisions on implementing social distancing and other guidance to local commanders.

It also asked for answers to about a dozen questions by this coming Monday. Asked whether the Pentagon will be responding to the senators who wrote the letter, a spokeswoman told The Hill that Esper’s letter to Inhofe “is the secretary’s response.”

The spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a follow up question on whether Esper’s letter was also sent to the 10 senators or whether Esper will not be answering their questions.

Warren’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Esper’s letter.

As of Friday, 5,171 service members have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including 114 who have been hospitalized, 1,978 who have recovered and two who have died.

In his letter to Inhofe, Esper maintained the Pentagon has been “ahead of need at every step,” arguing officials “have met or exceeded every request for assistance we have received.”

“That said, on behalf of America’s 2.9 million service members and DoD civilians, I am disappointed that some, especially committee members, would argue that the Defense Department has demonstrated a ‘failure to adequately respond to the ongoing coronavirus disease,’ ” Esper wrote. “Such a statement does not respect the 62,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently deployed across the nation in support of their fellow Americans, typically operating away from their families and usually at risk of their own lives.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Elizabeth Warren Jim Inhofe Mark Esper Mazie Hirono

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