OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Top general negative for coronavirus, Pentagon chief to get tested after Trump result l Top House lawmakers launch investigation into Pentagon redirecting COVID-19 funds
Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, 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: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has tested negative for the coronavirus, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper will be tested Friday, the Pentagon said after President Trump tested positive for the virus.
“The secretary, Mrs. [Leah] Esper, Chairman Milley, and Mrs. [Hollyanne] Milley send their thoughts and prayers to the president and first lady for a swift recovery,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement Friday.
“The secretary has expressed his appreciation for the White House’s military medical team and is confident that they will ensure that the president and first lady — like all members of our military family — will continue to receive the best medical care in the world,” Hoffman added.
A bombshell diagnosis: Trump and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19 late Thursday and are experiencing mild symptoms. A person with COVID-19 can be contagious a few days before becoming symptomatic.
Trump’s diagnosis, which came after close aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the virus, sent immediate shockwaves through the country, raising questions about both the political and national security implications.
Possible exposure: Both Milley and Esper were last with Trump on Sunday for an event at the White House for Gold Star families.
Esper, who has been traveling in Africa this week, was tested Monday and Wednesday as part of his travel routine and the tests came back negative both times, Hoffman said. It can take several days after exposure for a coronavirus test to come back positive.
Esper will be tested again Friday “as planned for continuation of his travel,” Hoffman said. Milley was tested Friday morning and was negative, according to the statement.
Esper will not be returning to the United States early, Hoffman added.
National security concerns?: On national security, observers quickly questioned whether U.S. adversaries would seek to exploit a perceived weakness while the president is ill.
The Pentagon on Friday downplayed those concerns.
“There’s been no change to [Defense Department] alert levels,” Hoffman said. “The U.S. military stands ready to defend our country and interests. There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces. Our national command and control structure is in no way affected by this announcement.”
Hoffman also shot down online speculation that routine flights early Friday of Boeing E-6B Mercury aircraft, which send instructions to the U.S. fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, were meant as a message to U.S. adversaries after Trump’s diagnosis.
Trump heads to Walter Reed: Trump on Friday arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in what his administration said was out of an abundance of caution.
Trump on Friday evening, shortly after arriving at the medical center, tweeted a pre-recorded video message thanking Americans for their support as he battles COVID-19, which has infected more than 7 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 205,000.
White House officials have said the president is experiencing “mild symptoms,” and his physician said he is feeling fatigued. But a person familiar with the matter said Trump was also running a light fever, and other outlets have reported the president is dealing with nasal congestion.
HOUSE COMMITTEE LAUNCHES INVESTIGATION INTO PENTAGON’S USE OF COVID FUNDS: The heads of several House subpanels on Friday called for the Pentagon to turn over documents into how it used $1 billion in coronavirus relief funds, citing the Defense Department’s use of much of the money to pay defense contractors rather than buy medical supplies.
“We are investigating whether the Department of Defense (DOD) inappropriately used hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars appropriated by Congress in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act,” lawmakers wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“These funds were intended to prioritize the domestic production and distribution of urgently needed medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) – many of which are still in short supply – but DOD has reportedly diverted a significant portion of these funds to provide lucrative contracts to defense contractors for non-medical projects.”
Who sent the letter: The letter was sent by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chairman Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.); Committee on Financial Services Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.); Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.); and Subcommittee on National Security Chairman Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.).
The background: The Washington Post first reported last month that the Pentagon has used most of the $1 billion on defense contractors rather than medical supplies.
The department awarded contracts for jet engine parts, body armor and dress uniforms, among other military equipment, which critics argue is in contravention of the CARES Act stipulation that the funds be used to “prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus.”
Following the report’s release, the Pentagon defended itself, arguing the money was never intended to be restricted to medical supplies, that it kept Congress fully informed of its plans and that helping the defense industrial bases through the pandemic is an appropriate response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The department had also notified Congress in late May that it planned to use $688 million of the funding to shore up the defense industrial base.
The lawmakers’ argument: The lawmakers, however, point to medical supplies and PPE shortages which have persisted more than six months after the Trump administration declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency.
While DOD may rightly argue that the goal of its spending was to offset financial distress in the defense industrial base caused by the pandemic, the lawmakers say, the use of CARES Act dollars in this manner “runs counter to Congress’ intent that these appropriations be prioritized to address shortages in medical supplies and equipment.”
What they want: The lawmakers asked Esper to hand over documents that show how the Pentagon spent its CARES act money, including the recipient of every contract funded by the money, the amount, the date of the award, what was provided and which senior contracting officer signed off on it.
They also want to know whether the contract recipient received other CARES Act funding, whether they had relevant past performance with DOD, and “all documents related to the decision to use CARES Act funding to stimulate the defense industrial base rather than to support production and distribution of PPE.”
The letter asks for the documents and information by Oct. 16, as well as a staff briefing by that time “to address these issues.”
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