Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a memo on Monday ordering that military travel restrictions be extended until June 30 in response to the ongoing threat from the coronavirus. At the same time, Donald Trump continued to push for states to relax social distancing rules by May 1, suggesting the worst of the crisis has passed.
"The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to present significant risk to our forces as the DoD considers domestic and overseas personnel travel. These movements present the threat of spreading COVID-19 within our ranks and communities," Esper wrote. "My priorities remain protecting our Service members, DoD civilians, and families; safeguarding our national security capabilities; and supporting the whole-of-nation response."
The restrictions halt almost all government-funded travel, internationally and domestically, for all service members, civilian personnel, and dependents.
In a statement, the Pentagon acknowledged the order "will have great impact on our service members and their families who are looking to proceed with their lives," but added that "the rapidly changing environment has created significant risks to service members."
Last week, he released guidelines for states to reopen as soon as May 1.
"You're going to be calling the shots," he told governors. "We'll be standing right alongside of you, and we're going to get our country open and get it working." Hours later, he began attacking Democratic governors for not immediately ending stay-at-home orders.
This is not the first time Trump has clashed with his military leadership and national security advisers.
Last year, Trump ousted Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer after the two disagreed on a series of pardons Trump issued to accused war criminals. Spencer said the pardons would harm the "good order and discipline" that are "the backbone" of what the military does.
"What message does that send to the troops?" he noted. "That you can get away with things."
Trump's first defense secretary, Gen. Jim Mattis, served two years before the two had a falling out over Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
Trump's first secretary of homeland security, Gen. John Kelly, has said he was "not consulted" prior to Trump's announcement of a ban on Muslims traveling to the United States. "Ethically, I did not agree with what this ban was written to do," Kelly recalled in February.
Trump's defense chiefs also pushed back against his 2017 order banning transgender service members from the U.S. military. Gen. Joseph Dunford, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delayed implementing the ban until he was formally instructed to do so, saying, "In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect. As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions."
As a candidate, Trump made it clear that he believed he knew more than the military leadership. "I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me," he bragged in November 2015. "They don't know much because they're not winning," he said the following June.
At his Monday COVID-19 press briefing, Trump said, "Following the release of our reopening guidelines, governors across the country are looking forward to phase one and announcing plans for an economic resurgence; we're going to have a resurgence, too." He claimed that "many of the areas hardest hit by the virus appear to have turned the corner" and that "recent deaths are down very, very substantially."
But according to the COVID Tracking Project, more than 170,000 positive tests for the virus have been reported in the United States in the past week. More than 11,000 deaths were reported in that time — more than a quarter of the total U.S. deaths linked to the coronavirus to date.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.