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How Trump’s COVID-19 Failure Betrayed Our Military and Veterans

President Trump’s coronavirus fantasies didn’t just mislead the American people—they hamstrung the military and prevented the VA system from being able to prepare for the pandemic.
April 22, 2020
How Trump’s COVID-19 Failure Betrayed Our Military and Veterans
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The failure of Donald Trump’s administration to heed warnings and prepare for the arrival of COVID-19 have been well documented.

Less well understood is the extent to which Trump also failed to protect both America’s armed forces and veterans, too.

The novel coronavirus is currently spreading among active duty military with more than 3,000 positive cases documented. Meanwhile our veterans are being put in vulnerable positions in facilities susceptible to spread for the virus as their healthcare providers have been forced to ration personal protective equipment at the same time that staffing shortfalls and vacancies threaten the ability to serve increasing numbers of infected patients and staff. As of April 17, the VA system had 5,468 documented positive cases and 339 veterans had officially died from COVID-19 in addition to 10 VA healthcare workers.

The same nightmare the rest of the country has experienced over the last month is unfolding within the VA and the Department of Defense. And the causes are the same, too: a lack of preparation, equipment, and supplies.

All of this is known within the Trump administration.

Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine who served four tours in Iraq and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to Vice President Mike Pence and the top officials at the CDC, HHS, and DoD on February 25 to express his “grave concern over recent misinformation and testing setbacks.” Moulton urged them “to center preparation around widespread and accurate testing as well as the broad dissemination of only evidence-based information to the public.”

Four weeks later Moulton, who gets his healthcare from the VA, was sick with coronavirus-like symptoms. He self-quarantined because he was unable to get tested.

“There are hundreds of thousands of vets who should have been tested and should be being tested now. People are dying because of it,” Moulton said, adding that Trump “certainly has the blood of fellow Americans on his hands because of his total failure as commander-in-chief.”

And Moulton was not the first person to warn the Trump administration. The New York Times reports that on January 28, Dr. Carter Mecher, a senior medical advisor at the VA, wrote to public health experts both in government and at various universities warning that “any way you cut it, this is going to be bad.” Mercher added that “the projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”

The list of government officials on Mercher’s email list included Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others at the Health and Human Services Department, the Homeland Security Department, and the State Department.

The administration’s failure to heed these warnings is threefold:

  • The spread of the virus among the armed forces contributed to a decline in military readiness.
  • The spread within the VA broke the nation’s compact with our veterans.
  • The VA’s “fourth mission” is a federal charge to step in and serve as the nation’s backstop when civilian hospitals are overwhelmed in a crisis. That mission too, has been a failure.

Who is at fault for these mission failures? The commander-in-chief.

Trump threw out the pandemic preparation left by his predecessors and slashed response resources before denying reality for 70 days while the virus spread out of control. And he made it virtually impossible for the leadership at the DoD or VA to get out in front of him as he insisted to the nation that the threat was “very low” and that the virus would disappear, “like a miracle.”

“He has created a leadership climate that stifles the kind of transparency, communication and truth telling that’s required in a crisis like this,” Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, said of President Trump. “What we have learned about pandemic response is that it’s impossible to over-communicate, even with imperfect information. It’s important to be as truthful as possible and communicate as clearly, consistently and as frequently as possible.”

Today, four aircraft carriers have positive cases of COVID-19. A sailor aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt has died and 660 of his shipmates tested positive for the virus. Submarines are a critical concern, because isolation and distancing are impossible on those vessels. And so is the fact that social distancing is slowing both recruiting and training, meaning that maintaining a proper posture of force disposition is going to become difficult in the medium-term future.

Meanwhile active-duty military leaders who already struggle with two competing goals—protecting the health of U.S. troops while keeping detailed information about force disposition away from America’s adversaries—have learned that communicating honestly, let alone sounding alarms, is now a danger to their careers.

Patient Zero here is Capt. Brett Crozier, the commander of USS Theodore Roosevelt, who forfeited his career in an effort to force his superiors to protect his crew from an outbreak. Frustrated by what he believed was an inadequate response from the Pentagon, Crozier wrote a letter that leaked to the press. He was relieved of command and then personally attacked—called “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this”—in front of his former crew aboard Theodore Roosevelt, by acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly.

Why this reaction? Because Modly was acting on what he perceived to be the wish of President Trump, who said that while he didn’t order Crozier’s firing he agreed with it. “I thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature.” (Ironically Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn infuriated his superiors and colleagues when he publicly criticized our intelligence system while serving as chief military intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Seven years later Donald Trump made him his National Security Advisor. So, as always, these rationales are situational.)

Most of this story is well known. Less well known is that chief of naval operations Admiral Michael Gilday is reviewing the incident and has indicated that he may reinstate Crozier, should his review show that Crozier’s pleas weren’t adequately addressed by superiors before he took them outside of the chain of command.

Gilday is surely aware that reversing Crozier’s termination order could cost him his job. After all, Trump fired Modly’s predecessor, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, for opposing Trump’s controversial decision to pardon Navy Seals convicted of war crimes.

The Roosevelt has become a canary in the coal mine, spreading fear among commanders that they could find themselves in the very same situation as Crozier. Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus tweeted after Crozier’s firing: “This comes from the top. . . . Our military, like our national government, has no overall plan on #COVID. Firing CO sends chilling signal to other commanders.”

This is the atmosphere in which the American military has been forced to deal with the pandemic.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, contrary to the initial assumption that sailors aboard the Roosevelt were infected during a port visit in Vietnam, the outbreak likely resulted from the ship’s flight operations. (The first cases were within the carrier’s air wing.) This is worrisome because it suggests, as the Journal puts it, that “the U.S. Navy’s decision to curtail port visits may not alone stop coronavirus infections.”

New guidelines were issued by the Navy just last week regarding cleaning and disinfecting, treating the sick, segregating and separating those exposed or with symptoms. This memo was an implicit acknowledgement that the DoD assumes that the virus has spread:

GOAL IS COVID free workplace but asymptomatic personnel will be present! Day-to-day actions must assume COVID is present => face coverings, hand washing, routine ship disinfecting.

At the end of the April 15 memo there is a reminder in all caps: “WE HAVE NO NAVY WITHOUT OUR PEOPLE AND OUR SHIPS.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who announced last Saturday he would extend the DoD travel restrictions through June 30, said that decisions about moving troops and their families will be “driven by science.” While Esper has been credited with increasing communication through the crisis—he has held town halls and his team has held regular daily Pentagon briefings—he has also been criticized for a slow and uneven response. For instance, on January 22, after the first diagnosis of COVID-19 in the United States, he was asked whether the virus was “still not an issue” for the military leadership.

Esper replied, “It’s just—I just saw it on the news last night, so I’m not tracking that.”

He added that he was sure his “people” were following it, but that there was just one known case in the country.

On April 18, when asked about the high rate of asymptomatic transmission in positive cases among the crew of the Roosevelt (350 of 660 cases), Esper sounded as though he was unfamiliar with this key fact: “That has revealed a new dynamic of this virus, it can be carried by normal, healthy people who have no idea whatsoever that they’re carrying it. We’re learning a lesson there and making sure we communicate that to our broader force.”

Here, Esper sounded alarmingly like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp who, in early April, said that he had only just learned about asymptomatic transmission of the virus.

As with Kemp, it’s unclear if Esper was truly this uninformed about the basic facts of the coronavirus, or if this was a pose being struck to stay on President Trump’s good side.

Nearly a month after his late January warning, Dr. Mecher sent another email to his list about the VA’s lack of PPE. On February 25 he wrote: “We should plan assuming we won’t have enough PPE— so need to change the battlefield and how we envision or even define the front lines.”

This warning, too, went unanswered. Like other healthcare systems, the VA didn’t have adequate supplies of PPE for its frontline workers. But unlike civilian healthcare systems, the VA refused to publicly admit that this shortage existed for nearly two months.

Following repeated denials throughout March and April, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and his top officials conceded last Friday they have been rationing PPE. The reversal came only after numerous reports from military publications and veterans’ advocates such as Paul Rieckhoff.

The founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and host of the Angry Americans podcast, Rieckhoff has been tweeting every statistic he can find about nurses and doctors lacking PPE at VA facilities, the woeful lack of testing in the VA, how many people are testing positive among staff and patients, and how many have died alongside the hashtag #Where’sWilkie.

Wilkie, who is part of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, had spoken only twice at the president’s daily briefings and had given interviews only to friendly conservative media outlets before speaking with the Wall Street Journal on April 17.

In the interview Wilkie used a number of formulations which seemed designed not to communicate directly and transparently with veterans and the public, but to not upset President Trump. For instance, he said “We don’t have the supplies that we would have in an optimal situation, we have the supplies that we need as the CDC prescribes.”

Wilkie then went on to argue that shortages couldn’t have been avoided anyway: “The normal operating procedure cannot be maintained in a once-in-a-century crisis.”

Finally, Wilkie claimed that testing had expanded at nursing homes and spinal-cord-injury centers. But he would not say whether or not the VA could yet expand its testing throughout all its facilities.

And it wasn’t just veterans the general public the VA was trying to dupe. It was also withholding information from Congress.

Beginning on March 18, the House Veterans Affairs Committee started sending requests to the VA asking for documents relating to supplies of PPE. The committee sent 17 of these without receiving any answer. The VA responded only to the 18th request, on April 17. And then only after the committee accused the White House of muzzling the department.

In a letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force dated April 15, committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano noted the information shared with lawmakers in VA briefings stood in stark contrast to disclosures from VA employees and asked that the administration allow the VA “to cooperate with Congress” and provide the committee key documents and information.

The stalling, the letter from committee lawmakers stated, “leads us to a simple conclusion—your administration has hamstrung VA’s ability to ensure Congress is fully informed of the full extent to which it is prepared to care for veterans and fulfill VA’s fourth mission of augmenting the civilian health care system.” Takano added: “We don’t need to waste any more of Secretary Wilkie’s and Dr. Stone’s valuable time with further requests for these documents when it is clear that the White House and OMB are holding up their release.”

Two days after that letter went public, the VA provided some—but not all—of the requested documentation to the committee.

If it looks like the VA is covering for Trump, well, yes, they were. And not for the first time.

The VA had actually expressed its urgent concern about the virus to the House committee early on in the outbreak, staff for committee members said. Why didn’t these VA officials make their concern public? Because they didn’t want to be at odds with President Trump while he was downplaying the threat.

On March 4, Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affair, was informed by a top VA official that the VA initiated its response to COVID-19 two months earlier, on January 4. This was weeks before the first known case in the United States. In written responses to questions from Tester, Dr. Richard Stone, undersecretary for health at the VA, noted that response, including embedding a VA physician with the CDC in Atlanta.

But these early warnings did not translate into an adequate response from the DoD or the VA. These two departments—which comprise the two largest budgets in the federal government—could have brought enormous resources to bear in a national effort to fight the coronavirus. Instead they sat on the sidelines so as not to embarrass the president, who was committed to selling the country a series of untruths about the outbreak.

Today the VA is struggling to keep infections down at the 170 medical centers and 1,074 clinics it operates. It also runs some nursing homes while certifying other state facilities to care for our nation’s veterans.

One of those facilities—Soldiers Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts—has already lost 57 veterans to COVID-19.

And then there is the VA’s “fourth mission” of providing aid to the nation’s civilian healthcare providers in a time of crisis.

The results here have been, at best, modest. Some beds, staff, and clinicians and a mobile pharmacy trailer have been dispatched for Michigan and Connecticut. Some non-veterans are being cared for in VA facilities in Louisiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, New Mexico, and New York. The VA’s original estimate was that the department would be able to aid 1,500 non-veteran patients.

To this point, the VA system has absorbed 135.

And the reality may be worse than that: An inspector general review in March warned that an inability to care for veterans might actually reverse the agency’s fourth mission—meaning that some veterans would have to be transferred to non-VA hospitals and facilities for care.

And even here, it is a sign of failure. Because while some parts of the VA are being stretched beyond capacity, others are actually underutilized. According to a Bloomberg report last week, more than 60 percent of the VA’s acute care and ICU beds are empty.

Why are these physical resources empty? Because the VA doesn’t have the human resources to take advantage of them. According to a General Accounting Office report last September, the VA had a “severe” staff shortage, with more than 43,000 open jobs for doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and additional medical staff.

In March, Wilkie called this GAO report “silly” and denied that vacancies would impact the VA’s COVID-19 care because they are mostly in mental health and sub-specialties “like cancer and primary care.” He then pivoted to praise President Trump, saying “we have never delivered as much and we have never delivered as varied services as we have in the last few years and I owe a lot of that to the attention that the president of the United States has given to veterans.”

And of course he’s right, in a sense. President Trump pays a great deal of attention to veterans when they are available to be used as props for his performative nationalism.

He does, however, seem ever so slightly less attentive if they are a political inconvenience.

At that point, they become somewhat more disposable. There is some history to this.

Veterans are much more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the average American. Of the 9 million veterans in the system, half are over the age of 65 and many have underlying health conditions related to their service or their age. The VA knew how tough this pandemic could be for our veterans.

A COVID-19 plan the VA released was fairly explicit. It predicted that as much as 20 percent of those infected could require hospitalization; that 30 percent of the VA’s workforce could become unavailable; and the pandemic could last 18 months or more. Jeremy Butler, the head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called these “troubling assumptions” and warned that the VA was not adequately prepared.

And in the VA, the impact of the pandemic has spread beyond patients with COVID-19. Elective procedures and other appointments have been canceled, there have been difficulties connecting to service providers, and transitioning to telehealth or tele-mental health for many patients. All in all: A massive disruption of services for veterans.

And this disruption has taken place inside something like a media blackout.

“We need strong leadership to get the message out, regardless of what the implications are,” Butler said. “The public isn’t hearing from the VA and we’re not getting full transparency.”

Rieckhoff said that he believes Trump bears some responsibility for this failure.

“Trump made a choice,” Rieckhoff said. “He could have stood up with the CEO of CVS and the My Pillow guy, or stood up with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the VA.”

Indeed, the president did make his choice.

Rieckhoff also notes another problem. In New York City, 29 police officers have died of the coronavirus and 25 percent of the NYPD is offline. What happens if 25 percent of America’s Navy Seals were suddenly to go offline, too? “Our national security is endangered when people we hold up as American heroes are getting decimated and our wartime president doesn’t seem to care or even know,” Rieckhoff says.

One former Pentagon official told me that the pandemic has underscored just how much the military depends on competence, discipline, and good order and that Trump hit the worst challenge of his leadership at a deficit.

“There was already discomfort in the military and throughout the active corps about whether we have a competent commander-in-chief,” the official said. “And that was the opening frame through which we entered into this crisis.”

General Michael Hayden, a four-star general who served as director of both the CIA and the NSA, was willing to say what few others will: That this was all predictable.

In Hayden’s book, The Assault on Intelligence, he wrote:

[T]he president’s instinct toward action, his impatience with process, his lack of interest in history, his focus on “winning,” his obsession with protecting the Trump brand (in this case toughness)—all that could conspire to create a very bad decision.

Hayden told me last week: “Sadly, it turns out that passage was absolutely descriptive, prophetic to our current situation, and dishearteningly true.”

Moulton agrees that we should have expected this sort of response from Trump in a crisis, because “every step of the way he’s done the precise opposite of what principled leaders do. That’s why he’s so dangerous for our troops and our vets.”

“He shirks responsibility rather than accept it, he hoards credit rather than praise his troops, he cares about his own image rather than the success of the mission,” Moulton said. “It’s literally the opposite of everything we learn in military training.”

Unlike white evangelical voters, whom Trump works hard to please and dares not cross, the president panders to, but ultimately takes for granted, the political support of veterans and those serving in uniform. A Military Times poll shows that, despite military voters leaning more conservative and Republican, this is a mistake: The month before the outbreak, Trump’s approval was at 42 percent among active military, with disapproval at 50 percent—a net swing of -17 points since his election.

So Trump isn’t just underwater with the general public. He’s underwater with the military, too.

Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee for Veterans Affairs told me:

There are a lot of Veterans I meet with who voted for Donald Trump that will never vote for him again. His complete disregard for the chain of command, cutting out local Veteran Service officers from decision making and insulting noble, long serving soldiers and sailors. This is a group that Trump and failed and insulted in the process. They won’t stand for his bullshit anymore.

None of this would surprise anyone who has been paying attention, inside and out of the military and veteran community.

For starters, there’s Trump policies: The withdrawal of troops from Syria after multiple threats and retreats; the abandonment of the Kurds; and the announced withdrawal from Afghanistan (accompanied by a deal with the Taliban that strengthens their hand and releases their prisoners without a pledge to cease hostilities toward allied forces).

But there’s also his offenses: For a man who was lucky enough to be diagnosed with bone spurs just in time to avoid Vietnam, Trump has been hostile toward a number of veterans and active-duty soldiers.

There are his repeated attacks against Sen. John McCain—both in life and after death. There was his ugly campaign against a Gold Star family in the summer of 2016. He has trashed decorated war veterans serving his own administration—from Bill Taylor (Purple Heart) to Alexander Vindman (Purple Heart) to John Kelly (four-star general and father of a fallen soldier) and Robert Mueller (Bronze Star, Purple Heart). The most audacious was his belittling of Jim Mattis, a four-star revered in the military whom Trump hailed as “a true general’s general” when he appointed him as defense secretary, but later dismissed as “the world’s most overrated general” after Mattis resigned in protest.

When Trump pardoned three war criminals, impeding the ability to prosecute future war crimes, he then publicly attacked the military leadership which had objected to the pardons, boasting at one of his rallies, “Just this week, I stuck up for three great warriors against the Deep State.”

Trump has refused to help save the USPS, which is the second-largest employer of veterans in the nation and which needs emergency funding to survive. In January the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked that he apologize for dismissing traumatic brain injuries as “headaches” and “nothing too serious.” He refused. Last year he boasted that he rented out U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia for $1 billion, as if they were mercenaries for hire.

In all of this, Trump has brought the same strategy to managing the military as he has to domestic politics: Polarize the landscape and keep his side loyal and energized.

The problem is that the American military, as an institution, is not designed to be aggressively politicized and doing so tears at the cohesion that keeps it strong.

As Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force colonel and CNN military analyst, puts it:

The effect of the Trump presidency on the military and on veterans has been exceptionally divisive. You have both active-duty and veterans groups who are now split in pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions. Senior leaders once revered by their troops are now often disinvited from organizational events just because they’ve publicly questioned President Trump’s policies or actions. Servicemen and -women are trained to follow orders, but sometimes their unquestioning fealty to Trump administration policies or to the president himself has been downright dangerous. The development of any personality cult around a president, no matter who it is or what party they represent, is antithetical to the democratic values we veterans and service members have sworn to uphold.

Our men and women in uniform and in harm’s way—and our veterans—deserve better.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.