Overnight Defense: Navy hospital ship deploying to New York | Trump invokes defense law to boost coronavirus response | Air Force moves 500K virus test swabs to US

Overnight Defense: Navy hospital ship deploying to New York | Trump invokes defense law to boost coronavirus response | Air Force moves 500K virus test swabs to US
© Getty

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.


THE TOPLINE: A U.S. Navy hospital ship will be heading to New York City as the coronavirus outbreak worsens, but it will be a few weeks before it's on its way.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Wednesday morning that President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE had agreed to deploy the USNS Comfort to New York.

A little bit later, Trump confirmed the Comfort and another hospital ship, the Mercy, were preparing to deploy. But he seemingly conflated the two ships when he spoke about where they were heading.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Pentagon confirmed the Comfort was intended for New York, while the Mercy's destination is to be determined on the West Coast.

Timeline: The Comfort is undergoing maintenance at its home port in Norfolk, Va., right now, while the Mercy is at its home port in San Diego, Calif.

Despite Trump and Cuomo's comments suggesting the deployment of the Comfort was imminent, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the maintenance means it will be weeks before the ship is underway.

"They're going to expedite the maintenance that they can and prepare it," Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon. "That's not a days issue. That's a weeks issue, so it's going to be a little while."

The Mercy will "hopefully" be prepared to deploy "in days, not weeks," he added.

What the ships can do: Pentagon officials have repeatedly stressed that the ships are designed to treat trauma patients, not infectious diseases.

That means the ships will help the current crisis by taking trauma cases away from civilian hospitals, freeing beds, equipment and manpower to deal with coronavirus patients.

"Our understanding is that the intent is that the ships will be used to take non-coronavirus cases,"  Joint Staff surgeon Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs said at the Pentagon briefing.

By the numbers: The Pentagon also gave updated numbers Wednesday on its coronavirus cases.

As of early Wednesday morning, there are 49 confirmed cases in the active-duty military, 14 civilians, 19 dependents and seven contractors.

Pentagon flies in test swabs: Pentagon officials also confirmed the Air Force has moved 500,000 coronavirus testing swabs to the United States from Italy.

An Air National Guard unit transported 500,000 swabs – used as part of the process to test for COVID-19 – from Italy to Memphis, Tenn. The swabs were then loaded onto FedEx aircraft and distributed around the country as directed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Hoffman told reporters.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein earlier on Wednesday confirmed the shipment.

"We've just made a pretty significant movement into Memphis last night," Goldfein told reporters.

He added that the shipment was in support of the Department of Homeland Security and HHS "to make sure that we are meeting the demands that they have."

Defense One first reported on the shipment of swabs, which were flown by a C-17 cargo plane using the call "Reach 911." It landed early Tuesday morning at Memphis International Airport.

The Trump administration has faced intense criticism over the lack of widely available coronavirus tests. Officials have insisted testing is ramping up this week and will be more accessible across the country in the coming days and weeks.

Trump invokes Defense Production Act: Trump also announced Wednesday he will invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA), which would allow the administration to force American industry to manufacture medical supplies that are in short supply in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. 

Hospitals, health workers and state and local officials have said they are quickly running out of personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks, gowns and gloves, that are crucial to keeping doctors and nurses on the front lines of the pandemic safe.

"There's never been an instance like this where no matter what you have it's not enough," Trump said at the White House briefing with reporters. 

"If we need to use it, we'll be using it at full speed ahead," he said.

Hospitals are also sounding the alarm on the lack of ventilators, or breathing machines, that are expected to be in high demand as the coronavirus spreads in the coming weeks and months. 

Democrats in Congress, hearing about shortages of supplies from hospitals in their states and districts, have urged Trump to invoke the Korean War-era DPA to direct the domestic production of necessary medical equipment. 

Bill No. 2 clears Congress: The Senate passed the House's coronavirus aid package on Wednesday, sending it to Trump, who is expected to sign it. 

Senators voted 90-8 on the bill that passed the House in a middle-of-the-night Saturday vote but needed dozens of pages of corrections and changes, which cleared the chamber on Monday. 

The measure, which the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates will cost $104 billion, is the second package that Congress has passed amid growing concerns about the widespread coronavirus outbreak in the United States that has already bludgeoned the economy.

The bill approved Wednesday bolsters unemployment insurance and guarantees free diagnostic testing for the coronavirus. 

The vote on the second package comes as senators are already working on "phase three," with Senate Republicans wanting to pass the next tranche next week. The third coronavirus bill is expected to include help for impacted small businesses, industries and families, including direct cash payments for Americans.

Stranded abroad: Nearly 300 Americans currently in Peru are appealing for help in leaving the country after the government shut its borders earlier this week, highlighting the plight of U.S. citizens abroad as countries scramble to shut down travel in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The Peruvian government issued a state of emergency on Sunday night to close all land, sea and air borders. On Tuesday, it issued an updated travel advisory allowing flights to resume to repatriate Peruvians and return foreigners to their home countries abroad.

Many Americans have been caught up in the confusion, split between the port city of Lima where the international airport is, and the mountain town of Cuzco, which has one airport. A number of Americans stuck in the country say they are having difficulty finding places to sleep.

Two Americans tried to organize stranded U.S. travelers by creating a group chat on the messaging service WhatsApp, which has expanded to nearly 300 participants and more people being added.

They say they have received little to no communication with the U.S. Embassy in Peru, are distraught over whether they can return to the U.S. and are concerned over whether those with permanent residency status in the U.S. will be able to return.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats called on Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBritain and Europe need to step up their support for Hong Kong Take China seriously, not literally Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death MORE to do more to help Americans stuck abroad.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezGovernment watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips No time to be selling arms to the Philippines Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation MORE (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, sent a letter co-signed by other committee Democrats to Pompeo to clarify the government's response to assisting citizens seeking to return to the U.S. amid flight cancelations and border closures.

"We write to express our urgent concerns regarding the support being provided to citizens overseas, including those seeking to return to the United States, as the spread of coronavirus continues to impose significant challenges for governments and communities worldwide," he wrote.


IN NON-CORONAVIRUS NEWS ... NEW TRANSGENDER MILITARY SERVICE LAWSUIT: A transgender Navy officer is suing the Pentagon over its ban on most transgender military service, arguing she faces involuntary discharge despite a successful record of service.

Four other lawsuits have previously been filed against the policy, but the latest one, filed by two advocacy groups on behalf of the officer identified only as Jane Doe, is the first since the ban took effect last year.

"As an experienced officer, all she seeks is the ability to continue serving her country on the same terms as others," Jennifer Levi, transgender rights project director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), said in a news release Wednesday. "The Navy has invested nearly a decade in her training, and she is committed to serving for years to come. It destabilizes and debases our military to discharge Doe and other highly qualified people under a politically motivated policy that has no basis in anything other than bias."

Reminder of the policy: The Pentagon's current transgender policy went into effect in April after courts lifted the last of the injunctions that had been blocking the policy.

Transgender troops had been allowed to serve openly since June 2016 when the Obama administration lifted the previous ban on their service.

Under the Trump administration's policy, those who came out as transgender under the Obama administration's policy are allowed to continue serving openly and receive medical care.

But anyone who comes out now can only continue serving if they do so in their biological sex. Service members who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria "may be subject to the initiation of administrative separation" if they are "unable or unwilling to adhere to all applicable standards, including the standards associated with their biological sex," the policy says.

The policy allows the military services to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis.

About Doe: According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal district court in Massachusetts, Doe is a lieutenant who was commissioned as a naval officer in 2010 and has served two extended tours of duty as a surface warfare officer.

She was diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a military doctor in June and subsequently told her commanding officer about the diagnosis and her transgender identity.

The lawsuit says she "now faces involuntary discharge from service and the end of her Navy career solely because she is transgender."

Doe applied for a waiver in October, the lawsuit says, but adds the waiver process "is itself a form of unequal treatment because it targets a specific group -- transgender people, and requires them to seek a waiver that no other service member who meets the military's standards for fitness and deployability is required to seek."



-- The Hill: US slaps new sanctions on Iran amid renewed rocket attacks in Iraq

-- The Hill: Trump taps new director for National Counterterrorism Center

-- The Hill: Russia using coronavirus fears to spread misinformation in Western countries

-- The New York Times: Coronavirus disrupts troop withdrawal in Afghanistan

-- The Washington Post: Afghanistan is stuck with a divided government and Taliban insurgency. Now, coronavirus is spreading.