Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday slammed Senate Democrats who penned a public letter on April 27 accusing the Pentagon of slow and disjointed efforts to protect the military from coronavirus.
“I’m 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 at a Pentagon press conference.
“I don’t think it is really recognizes all that the Department of Defense has done, particularly at a time we have 62,000 Americans out there in the streets of America who are, in many cases, risking their own health to protect the American people,” he added, referring to the service members helping states with their response efforts.
The letter was penned by ten Senate Democrats, including former 2020 presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Kamala Harris (CA), and Amy Klobuchar (MN) who are now vying to be former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate. They wrote:
We write to express our grave concern regarding the Department of Defense’s (DoD or the Department) failure to adequately respond to the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID19) pandemic. 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.
Esper said he has spoken to about three dozen governors who represent the members who signed the letter.
“Each one of those governors has told me, praised DOD’s performance, and thanked us for what we’ve done. Every step of the way, we’ve been ahead of the curve, we’ve met their needs, and we’ve done everything we can to help the American people. So the statements in that letter don’t match what I’m hearing from the governors,” he said.
Esper addressed several specific accusations Senate Democrats levied in the letter.
He said accusations that the Defense Department is not sharing data as to which installations have positive cases of coronavirus “are simply wrong.” “We share that data all the time with state, local, and federal authorities,” he said.
He said the letter also cited a “false story” put out by the New York Times that he gave guidance to commanders that they were not allowed to take action unless it was approved by him in advance.
“It’s a false story,” he said. “That has been debunked multiple times. The chairman and I testified about it before the Congress. The Secretary of the Army testified about it, and yet, we continue to see others, including in this letter, cite a source — an anonymous source, once again, who admittedly was not even in the room.”
Esper also said the accusation that he is issuing guidance to commanders — with extensive medical staffs — who do not know how to implement it is “just ridiculous.”
He also argued that he issued guidance as early as January 30 — just days after the first person in the U.S. with coronavirus was identified and weeks before the first American died. “That’s how far back it goes,” he said.
He said he will respond to the senators “in due course,” but for now, “I would just say, again, I’m disappointed in that letter. It doesn’t reflect the facts.”
He defended the department’s approach to allow for commanders at the lowest level possible to make decisions on how best to implement department guidelines depending on their circumstances, comparing it to federal guidelines to the states.
“I look at the skill and capability of our commanders in executing appropriately to their unique situations. It’s the same type of guidance that Dr. Fauci has said that we should be following in terms of applying it to the states and localities to provide broad guidelines and give folks flexibility to working with that,” he said.
“We’ve been applauded by other outside experts. So for some folks to continue to peddle this narrative is troubling because it’s 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 as they are at this time,” he said.
He said currently there are 3,100 cases in the active-duty military, fewer than 100 hospitalizations, and two deaths.
“Those numbers fare very well compared against our civilian counterparts, so I look at the facts,” he said.