House Democrats raise concerns over Joint Chiefs’ quarantine after COVID-19 exposure

Marine Corps commandant is the only chief not working from home

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Vice President Mike Pence after a Medal of Honor ceremony in the  White House on Sept. 11, 2020.  (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Vice President Mike Pence after a Medal of Honor ceremony in the White House on Sept. 11, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 6, 2020 at 6:28pm

Top Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee and a former U.S. spy chief expressed concerns about U.S. national security Tuesday after news broke that most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are quarantining after coming in contact with at least one person who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Seven of the eight members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the nation’s top military officers — are working from home, according to news reports, though a Pentagon official said Tuesday that none of the officers has tested positive for COVID-19 or shown symptoms.

The Joint Chiefs members had all attended an Oct. 2 meeting at the Pentagon alongside Adm. Charles Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, who had been infected with the virus, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement on Tuesday.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is among the top officers in quarantine. In addition to attending the Oct. 2 meeting, Milley and other senior Defense Department officials have gotten tested regularly since a Sept. 27 event at the White House for Gold Star families of fallen troops. Ray attended that event too, as did President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, both of whom caught the virus.  

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith criticized Trump for a “reckless and harmful”  approach to both messaging about the disease and failing to adequately protect others when Trump got sick. And the Washington Democrat expressed concerns about the chiefs’ condition.

“While our military can still operate while leadership is quarantined, the national security implications of the President’s recklessness cannot be overstated,” Smith said in a statement. “Our adversaries are always looking for any weakness to exploit. President Trump’s pathetic attempts to exude strength aren’t fooling anyone — Americans know he is weak and so do those who wish us harm.”

On the other hand, some experts believe the Joint Chiefs’ quarantine will not hamper the operations in the Pentagon’s top echelon.

Gary Roughead, a retired admiral who served on the Joint Chiefs as the Navy’s top officer, said the quarantine is an inconvenience but not a cause for worry.

“In fact, the communications situation is similar to when a Chief is on overseas travel for an extended period of time,” Roughead said. “It’s unusual so many are out at the same time, but connectivity and strong support staffs will keep all cylinders firing.{

Questions on safety protocols

California Democrat Jackie Speier, another senior member of the House Armed Services panel, asked on Twitter why, during a pandemic, the chiefs had met in person in the Pentagon’s “tank” meeting room. And she wondered whether they were wearing masks.

“Why are the joint chiefs not holding their meetings remotely using DoD’s secure conference systems before the exposure?” Speier tweeted. “The Pentagon has had 7 months to implement remote and physically distanced work arrangements. Who’s deciding when to meet in person vs. electronically?”

The Trump administration has frowned on mask-wearing and Milley, for one, has been repeatedly photographed maskless at indoor gatherings of top administration officials, including a Sept. 11 Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House.

“Why are senior military leaders going to WH receptions where no one is wearing a mask during a pandemic” Speier tweeted. “Why is the White House telling the Pentagon not to disclose positive tests in senior leaders while they downplay the severity of the virus and refuse to take preventive steps?”

James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, told an audience at The Washington Post on Tuesday that Trump’s illness and the self-isolation of most of the military chiefs puts U.S. security in peril.

“This is an ideal time for foreign intelligence to confuse us,” Clapper said. “The Joint Chiefs are in quarantine.”

Clapper also said that Trump}s health is “a high priority collection” topic for foreign intelligence services.

This is a “vulnerable time,” and an opportunity for adversaries, “while we are not looking, to further sow seeds of disinformation, casting doubt, discord, and distrust in our country," he added.

Gathering of four-stars

According to NBC News, in addition to Milley, the other quarantining chiefs are: Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten, Gen. John Raymond of the Space Force, Gen. Charles Q. Brown of the Air Force, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday and National Guard Chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson.

Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Paul Nakasone is not a member of the Joint Chiefs, but he was also in the meeting and is in self-quarantine, NBC News reported.

The only member of the Joint Chiefs who is not in quarantine, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, did not attend the meeting.

However, assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Gary Thomas attended in Berger’s place and is self-isolating, NBC News disclosed. 

Hoffman said in a statement that the department has been following federal guidelines for protecting its workforce. 

“There is no change to the operational readiness or mission capability of the U.S. Armed Forces,” Hoffman said. “Senior military leaders are able to remain fully mission capable and perform their duties from an alternative work location.”

Gopal Ratnam contributed to this report.