Defense Secretary Esper warns military commanders: Don't go off message with coronavirus response

Defense Secretary Esper warns military commanders: Don't go off message with coronavirus response
Image via Screengrab.

It’s all about the message. Defense Secretary Mark Esper held a video conference with U.S. military commanders around the world last week, The New York Times reports, to tell them that informing the Trump administration should come before urgent decisions about protecting service members from coronavirus.

“One Defense Department official said Mr. Esper wanted to be sure that everyone within the government knows what military commanders are doing, and to assure that the government is communicating to the public with one voice on a rapidly developing situation,” according to the Times. Well, isn’t that a nice careful way to say, “We’re trying to downplay this, guys, so don’t go off message even if the facts on the ground don’t line up with the message”?

When Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of American forces in South Korea, where there’s a major coronavirus outbreak, talked about his situation during Esper’s video conference, Esper “said he wanted advance notice before General Abrams or any other commander made decisions related to protecting their troops,” reported the Times. Abrams, to his credit, reportedly told Esper that if he had to make an urgent decision without permission, he was going to do what he had to do to keep people safe. But you have to wonder how many people on the call are more prone to intimidation or blind obedience.

Publicly, Esper’s message is, “Commanders of individually affected commands have all the authority they need, and will provide specific guidance to their troops as the situation continues to evolve,” because “My No. 1 priority remains to protect our forces and their families.” But the private pressure is for commanders to do what’s convenient for Donald Trump.

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