Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak

The Pentagon is retracing the steps of its top brass after a positive coronavirus case among senior officials forced Defense Department heads into quarantine.



Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak


© Greg Nash
Pentagon scrambles to retrace steps after White House COVID-19 outbreak

News of Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray testing positive, which came after he attended a Sept. 27 White House event, broke after Ray had met with several other senior leaders at the Pentagon last week.

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The Defense Department has since raced to conduct contact tracing, highlighting the stark difference between the Pentagon and White House, where administration officials have been reluctant to reveal key timeline details after President Trump and top aides tested positive.

“Simply because it is such a threat to readiness and can disable a ship, a building, a base, they take this very seriously,” Steve Morrison, a public health expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Pentagon’s response.

“It didn’t seem they were looking to be micromanaged by anyone, they sort of kicked in to gear,” he added.

Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Tuesday that the Pentagon is “conducting additional contact tracing and taking appropriate precautions to protect the force and the mission.”

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for specifics regarding its contact tracing and what additional precautions are being taken.

Hoffman said Tuesday that all potential close contacts from the meetings involving Ray “are self-quarantining and have been tested.”

One of those close contacts, Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, has since tested positive. He was quarantining when his results were announced by the Defense Department.

“We are aware of General Thomas’ positive test for COVID-19. At this time we have no additional senior leader positive test results to report. We will continue to follow CDC guidance for self-quarantining and contact tracing,” the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday night.

Most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, are self-quarantining following Ray’s positive test.

Others who are quarantining include Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday; Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown; Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond; National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson; and Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency.

The officials were possibly exposed during several meetings that Ray attended last week.

Ray tested positive on Monday after experiencing mild symptoms over the weekend. He had been indoors at the White House on Sept. 27 for a Gold Star family event in which several other top defense officials, including Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, were in attendance.

His diagnosis came amid a growing coronavirus outbreak centered on the White House, where Trump held an event in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26 to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court.

Milley and Esper have so

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Trump’s efforts to project normalcy run into reality as virus courses through the White House, the Capitol and the Pentagon.

President Trump’s efforts to project normalcy after being hospitalized with Covid-19 a month before Election Day ran into a major stumbling block on Tuesday: the reality on the ground in Washington, where the coronavirus outbreak has upended the federal government.

  • The White House, the leading coronavirus hot spot in the nation’s capital, resembled a ghost town, with its most famous inhabitant convalescing in the residence, as a number of advisers and other officials stayed home, either because they had contracted the coronavirus or had been near people who did, including the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who announced on Monday that she had tested positive.

  • The Capitol, a beehive workplace for 535 legislators and thousands of staff, was eerily empty on Tuesday after Senate leaders agreed to adjourn for two weeks beginning Monday, even as Republicans are trying to fast-track Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. More than 40 senators, along with more than a dozen congressional aides and reporters, have been tested for the coronavirus since late last week, officials said on Tuesday. Three Republican senators — Mike Lee of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — have tested positive in recent days.

  • Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with several of the Pentagon’s most senior uniformed leaders, was quarantining after being exposed to the coronavirus, a Defense Department official said on Tuesday. The official said almost the entirety of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff, are quarantining after Adm. Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, tested positive for coronavirus.

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Pentagon Is Clinging to Aging Technologies, House Panel Warns

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan House panel said on Tuesday that artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space and biotechnology were “making traditional battlefields and boundaries increasingly irrelevant” — but that the Pentagon was clinging to aging weapons systems meant for a past era.

The panel’s report, called the “Future of Defense Task Force,” is one of many underway in Congress to grapple with the speed at which the Pentagon is adopting new technologies, often using the rising competition with China in an effort to spur the pace of change.

Most reach a similar conclusion: For all the talk of embracing new technologies, the politics of killing off old weapons systems is so forbidding — often because it involves closing factories or bases, and endangers military jobs in congressional districts — that the efforts falter.

The task force said it was concentrating on the next 30 to 50 years, and concluded that the Defense Department and Congress should be “focused on the needs of the future and not on the political and military-industrial loyalties of the past.”

“We are totally out of time, and here is a bipartisan group — in this environment — saying that this is a race we have to win and that we are currently losing,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, who served with the Marine Corps in Iraq and was a co-chairman of the task force. “There is a misalignment of priorities, and diminishing time to make dramatic changes.”

The report calls for the United States to undertake an artificial intelligence effort that uses “the Manhattan Project as a model,” citing the drive in World War II to assemble the nation’s best minds in nuclear physics and weapons to develop the atomic bomb. The task force found that although the Pentagon had been experimenting with artificial intelligence, machine learning and even semiautonomous weapons systems for years, “cultural resistance to its wider adoption remains.”

It recommended that every major military acquisition program “evaluate at least one A.I. or autonomous alternative” before it is funded. It also called for the United States to “lead in the formulation and ratification of a global treaty on artificial intelligence in the vein of the Geneva Conventions,” a step the Trump administration has resisted for cyberweaponry and the broader use of artificial intelligence.

But questions persist about whether such a treaty would prove useful. While nuclear and chemical weapons were largely in the hands of nations, cyberweapons — and artificial intelligence techniques — are in the hands of criminal groups, terrorist groups and teenagers.

Nonetheless, the report’s focus on working with allies and developing global codes of ethics and privacy runs counter to the instincts of the Trump administration, making it more surprising that the Republican members of the task force signed on.

“I think this is a case of pushing for a different path at the Pentagon,” said Representative Jim Banks, Republican of Indiana and a co-chairman of the group.

In an interview, he was careful to avoid criticizing the White

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Esper promised more diversity at the Pentagon. The White House had other ideas.

Ted Johnson, a speechwriter for the Joint Chiefs from 2014 to 2016 and retired Navy commander, criticized the lack of diversity in the Trump administration broadly, noting that “the rhetoric that often accompanies the conversation around this administration makes it clear that if you are a minority serving in it, you’re going to have to contend with a level of discomfort that you would not have had to face in a previous administration.”

The Pentagon declined multiple requests to provide a breakdown of its senior civilian ranks by race, but publicly available data reveals a department run overwhelmingly by white men. Esper and his deputy, David Norquist, are white. Six out of seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are white men; new Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown is only the second Black man ever to serve on the Joint Chiefs.

The lower ranks of DoD senior leadership are only slightly more diverse. Out of six undersecretaries of defense, all are white and five are male. Out of 60 presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed positions, all but three are men. By comparison, at the end of the Obama administration in 2016, 11 were women.

At the Pentagon’s policy shop, nearly all the top positions are filled by men, including all five assistant secretaries of defense, four out of five principal deputies, and 19 out of 22 deputies, and all but two are white. At the end of the Obama administration, nine positions in the policy shop were held by women.

When it comes to national security, diversity of thought is particularly crucial, said Aaron Hughes, who served as the deputy assistant for cyber policy at DoD until 2017.

“If we have just a homogeneous population that thinks one way, that’s just putting us to [a] disadvantage when it comes to understanding world dynamics,” he said.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Risa Brooks, a professor of political science at Marquette University who specializes in civil-military relations, of Esper’s promise to increase diversity at the Pentagon. “Is this just hand-waving?”

Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell said while the Pentagon is “proud to be well-regarded as the largest, most diverse meritocracy in the world,” the department recognizes that there is still “work to be done on diversity and inclusion.”

In keeping with Esper’s diversity push, the policy shop has recently launched initiatives aimed at recruiting a more diverse group of junior and mid-level career employees, including outreach to historically black academic institutions, and is also creating a diversity council, Campbell said.

“As we continue to build on our efforts to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workforce for all who serve, we will draw upon the widest possible set of backgrounds, talents, and skills to increase the overall readiness and effectiveness of the department,” Campbell said.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations struggled when it comes to the overall workforce for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In September 2019, the last time the Office of Personnel Management

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WH tries to walk back Trump attack on Pentagon chiefs as beholden to arms dealers

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Tuesday tried to walk back an attack from President Donald Trump on the nation’s military leaders, claiming “the top people in the Pentagon” aren’t happy with him because he wants to get the U.S. out of wars while they are beholden to arms dealers.



Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the North Portico of the White House, Sept. 7, 2020, in Washington.


© Patrick Semansky/AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the North Portico of the White House, Sept. 7, 2020, in Washington.

Meadows told White House reporters Tuesday morning that he had spoken with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other top officials, claiming they know Trump’s striking comments Monday weren’t aimed at them.

“Those comments are not directed specifically at them as much as it is what we all know happens in Washington, D.C. This president is consistent about one thing, if we’re going to send our sons and daughters abroad to fight on our behalf, he’s not going to let some lobbyists here in Washington, D.C., just because they want a new defense contract, suggest that they need to stay abroad one minute longer than they should,” he said.



Mark Meadows wearing a suit and tie: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks to members of the press outside the West Wing of the White House on Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, DC.


© Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILE
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks to members of the press outside the West Wing of the White House on Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, DC.

“That comment was more directed about the military industrial complex,” Meadows continued, adding that no other president has been as good as Trump at giving “the equipment to our military men and women that need it.”

Esper is a former defense industry lobbyist for Raytheon.

MORE: The Note: Erstwhile allies keep Trump on guard and off message

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville was asked directly Tuesday morning whether the military is beholden to defense contractors at a Defense One online event.

“Many of these leaders have sons and daughters who have gone to combat, or may be in combat right now. So, I can assure the American people that the senior leaders would only recommend sending our troops to combat when it’s required in national security in the last resort. We take this very, very seriously in how we make our recommendations,” McConville said.

At a White House news conference Monday, Trump, in attacking Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden, suggested “the top people in the Pentagon” — including men he chose — have a common interest with arms dealers in wanting to stay in “endless wars.”



Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the North Portico of the White House, Sept. 7, 2020, in Washington.


© Patrick Semansky/AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the North Portico of the White House, Sept. 7, 2020, in Washington.

“And it’s one of the reasons the military — I’m not saying the military is in love with me — the soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,”

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White House has talked to VA secretary about running the Pentagon if Trump fires Esper

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has long been unhappy with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and White House officials have talked to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie about taking the top Pentagon job should Trump decide to fire Esper, three senior administration officials said.

Two senior administration officials said Trump discussed the position directly with Wilkie at the White House last month. Two other senior administration officials said Wilkie had senior-level discussions with the White House about becoming Trump’s next defense secretary.

The conversations included the idea of naming Wilkie — a Senate-confirmed member of Trump’s Cabinet — the acting defense secretary if the president fires Esper, officials said.

Image: Robert Wilkie (Steven Ferdman / Getty Images file)
Image: Robert Wilkie (Steven Ferdman / Getty Images file)

Wilkie was one of several possible replacements for Esper whom the White House informally interviewed this summer about serving as defense secretary, two current officials and one former official said. The conversations took place as Trump’s monthslong threats to fire Esper intensified, officials said. The option of naming Wilkie as acting Pentagon chief would give Trump the flexibility to remove Esper immediately after the November election, if not before.

Two senior administration officials said Trump has not entirely ruled out the possibility of making a change in Pentagon leadership before the election, although some of the president’s allies have cautioned him to wait until after. Two senior administration officials said there are no current plans for Esper to be removed before the election.

“There are no plans to replace Secretary Esper,” one of the officials said.

The White House declined to comment on the record. The Veterans Affairs Department and the Pentagon declined to comment.

The relationship between Trump and Esper was further strained last week when the two again publicly clashed over a policy decision. The president pointedly rebuffed Esper’s decision to cut funding in the Pentagon budget for Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for U.S. military personnel that has been published since the Civil War. Esper had been advised by multiple aides not to propose cutting the newspaper’s funding because the move would draw a political backlash, and it did from Republicans and Democrats.

A White House official said Trump thought the decision was “politically stupid,” and on Friday he wrote on Twitter, “The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to @starsandstripes magazine under my watch.”

The tensions between Trump and Esper persist as the president is under criticism over allegations that he made disparaging comments about the military after The Atlantic reported that he privately called veterans “suckers” and “losers.”

Esper has served as Trump’s third defense secretary for just over a year. He was confirmed by the Senate in July, succeeding acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Trump’s first Pentagon chief, James Mattis.

Trump has told aides for months that he is unhappy with Esper and wants to fire him. Trump’s allies inside and outside the White House have told him that shaking up leadership at the Pentagon before the Nov. 3 election

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White House has talked to VA secretary about taking Pentagon job if Trump fires Esper

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has long been unhappy with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and White House officials have talked to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie about taking the top Pentagon job should Trump decide to fire Esper, three senior administration officials said.

Two senior administration officials said Trump discussed the position directly with Wilkie at the White House last month. Two other senior administration officials said Wilkie had senior-level discussions with the White House about becoming Trump’s next defense secretary.

The conversations included the idea of naming Wilkie — a Senate-confirmed member of Trump’s Cabinet — the acting defense secretary if the president fires Esper, officials said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Fox Business Network’s “The Evening Edit” on Jan. 7.Steven Ferdman / Getty Images file

Wilkie was one of several possible replacements for Esper whom the White House informally interviewed this summer about serving as defense secretary, two current officials and one former official said. The conversations took place as Trump’s monthslong threats to fire Esper intensified, officials said. The option of naming Wilkie as acting Pentagon chief would give Trump the flexibility to remove Esper immediately after the November election, if not before.

Two senior administration officials said Trump has not entirely ruled out the possibility of making a change in Pentagon leadership before the election, although some of the president’s allies have cautioned him to wait until after. Two senior administration officials said there are no current plans for Esper to be removed before the election.

“There are no plans to replace Secretary Esper,” one of the officials said.

The White House declined to comment on the record. The Veterans Affairs Department and the Pentagon declined to comment.

The relationship between Trump and Esper was further strained last week when the two again publicly clashed over a policy decision. The president pointedly rebuffed Esper’s decision to cut funding in the Pentagon budget for Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for U.S. military personnel that has been published since the Civil War. Esper had been advised by multiple aides not to propose cutting the newspaper’s funding because the move would draw a political backlash, and it did from Republicans and Democrats.

A White House official said Trump thought the decision was “politically stupid,” and on Friday he wrote on Twitter, “The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to @starsandstripes magazine under my watch.”

The tensions between Trump and Esper persist as the president is under criticism over allegations that he made disparaging comments about the military after The Atlantic reported that he privately called veterans “suckers” and “losers.”

Esper has served as Trump’s third defense secretary for just over a year. He was confirmed by the Senate in July, succeeding acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Trump’s first Pentagon chief, James Mattis.

Trump has told aides for months that he is unhappy with Esper and wants to

Read more