According to a report from Politico, Pentagon officials have been battling behind the scenes with members of the White House over how the military is protecting servicemembers during the pandemic crisis -- with aides to President Donald Trump worried drastic measures would give the appearance they don't have control of the situation.
According to the report by Politico's Laura Seligman, "The Pentagon and the White House, in the weeks leading up to the president’s national emergency declaration on Friday, quarreled over the response to the coronavirus outbreak that was sweeping the country," with the reporter adding, "Defense Department leaders urged measures such as restricting troop travel in order to contain the virus. But other administration officials pushed back, arguing against any 'rash' steps that could have political ramifications and economic impact."
According to one defense official, the lack of direction from the White House has military officials "muddling through."
The report notes that Defense Secretary Mike Esper has given Pentagon officials wide latitude to do what they think is best as the epidemic spreads through the civilian community, but added that things have not run smoothly because the president delayed making his wishes as commander in chief known.
"Absent clear direction from the White House, the Pentagon’s initial internal response to the crisis, was ad hoc," the report notes. "In recent days, officials have scrambled to prepare the Navy's hospital ships, USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy, to help relieve pressure on civilian hospitals, defense officials said. Despite Trump’s assertion that the ships are 'in tip-top shape,' the Comfort, homeported in Norfolk, Va., has been in pier-side maintenance since December after returning from a five-month deployment and will not get underway until April 2. Meanwhile the Mercy, based out of San Diego, will be able to launch to its West Coast destination, either in California or Washington State, on Monday."
"Guidance on domestic and international travel for troops also trickled out in a disjointed fashion over the past few weeks. U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East and Afghanistan, canceled all leave and liberty travel for U.S. troops serving in the region on Feb. 27," Politico reports. "On the same day, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command postponed a major exercise with South Korea, and the Navy ordered all ships that have visited countries in the Pacific region to remain at sea for 14 days in order to monitor sailors for any symptoms."
According to Politico, those working below Esper are under instructions to make no major changes until they have been run up the chain of command and that the defense secretary has been "blindsided on multiple occasions over the past few weeks," having to intervene at lower levels to ensure the department presents a unified front."