Defense Secretary Warns Commanders Not to Surprise Trump on Coronavirus

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has urged American military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the coronavirus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of President Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge, American officials said.

Mr. Esper’s directive, delivered last week during a video teleconference call with combatant commanders around the world, is the latest iteration of Mr. Trump’s efforts to manage public fears over the disease, even as it continues to spread around the world.

Mr. Trump has said Democrats and the news media are stoking fear about the disease, even calling their concerns a “hoax” during one rally last week.

The president has since tempered his words.

Mr. Esper told commanders deployed overseas that they should check in before making decisions related to protecting their troops.

In one exchange during last Wednesday’s video teleconference, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the commander of American forces in South Korea, where more than 4,000 coronavirus cases have been detected, discussed his options to protect American military personnel against the virus, said one American official briefed on the call.

In response, Mr. Esper said he wanted advance notice before General Abrams or any other commander made decisions related to protecting their troops.

General Abrams said that while he would try to give Mr. Esper advance warning, he might have to make urgent health decisions before receiving final approval from Washington, the official said.

Aides to Mr. Esper declined to comment on the closed-door conversations with commanders. But 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.

During a news conference on Monday, Mr. Esper said decisions about troop safety in far-flung places would be put in the hands of the commanders.

“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,” Mr. Esper said. “My No. 1 priority remains to protect our forces and their families.”

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Defense Department was trying to plan for all possible scenarios related to coronavirus, including the possibility that the disease could become a global pandemic.

“The United States military looks at a wide variety of scenarios,” General Milley said at the news conference with Mr. Esper. He said military laboratories were working on a vaccine.

The Defense Department’s response is important because the American military has more than 75,000 troops stationed in countries that are experiencing outbreaks, including South Korea, Japan, Italy and Bahrain. Several American bases sit next to cities where the virus is spreading, and those bases employ civilian workers. Many American troops live off base as well. Last week, an American soldier in South Korea tested positive for the virus, the military’s first active-duty case.

During the news conference, General Milley said American troops were particularly well prepared to face the virus because the U.S. military for the most part tended to be young and healthy.

But the Pentagon nonetheless has canceled several joint military exercises, including in South Korea and in Israel, because of the coronavirus crisis.

The U.S. military is going ahead with another set of exercises — one of its largest in recent years in Europe. About 29,000 American soldiers — 20,000 deploying from the U.S. and 9,000 from units stationed in Europe — are involved in the exercise, Defender Europe 20.

The first major group of troops and equipment arrived in Europe in late February and is scheduled to continue into July.

Capt. Wendy Snyder, a spokeswoman for U.S. military forces in Europe, said the exercise was pressing ahead. She said in an email that military officials are working closely with their European counterparts, and encouraging adherence to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “guidelines and preventive health measures.”