Chairman and vice-chairman of joint chiefs in quarantine after coast guard official tests positive, as sense of crisis intensifies
America’s top military leaders were under self-quarantine Tuesday after a senior coast guard official tested positive for the coronavirus, the Pentagon said, as Donald Trump, infected with the coronavirus himself, continued to recuperate at the White House.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, and the vice-chairman, Gen John Hyten, were among those affected, US officials said.
Military leaders who were in contact with Adm Charles W Ray, the vice commandant of the US Coast Guard, were told Monday evening that he had tested positive, and they were all tested Tuesday morning, according to several US officials. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement that none have exhibited symptoms or have so far tested positive.
Ray was in a meeting of the joint chiefs of staff late Friday morning in what’s called the Tank the classified meeting room in the Pentagon. Officials said that is where most of the military leaders were exposed to him, but he also had other meetings with officials.
The infections at the top level of the military adds to a growing sense of coronavirus crisis in the US government, where the White House is also experiencing an outbreak. While the total number of White House staff and aides who have tested positive is unknown, given the administration’s cloak of secrecy around the outbreak, total cases appeared to number in the dozens, making the White House one of the hottest active zones for virus circulation in the entire US.
A day after the US president returned from the military hospital in Maryland where he had been treated for the disease, at least two additional cases of Covid-19 were diagnosed in his immediate circle.
A military attache, Jayna McCarron, tested positive, as did a valet, an active-duty member of the military who traveled with Trump last week, Bloomberg first reported.
Gen Milley’s decision to quarantine was first reported by CNN. He and other leaders attended a recent White House reception for military families that was also attended by the president and the first lady, Melania Trump, who also tested positive. But other reports quoted anonymous officials as saying the military outbreak was not believed to be linked to the White House.
The news sparked outrage among some observers. Democratic congressman and veteran Ted Lieu said the president’s behavior was a matter of national security. “The anti-science, anti-mask agenda of Trump is also a national security threat. Multiple members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now in quarantine because of exposure to #Covid_19,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, anxious to project strength just four weeks from election Day, Trump, who is still contagious with the virus, tweeted Tuesday morning that he is planning to attend next weeks debate with Democrat Joe Biden in Miami. “It will be great!” he said.
In a letter, Trump’s doctor, Sean Conley, said Trump had a “restful” night at the White House and that on Tuesday he reports no symptoms. On Monday afternoon, shortly before his departure from Walter Reed national military medical center, Conley offered that the president would not be fully out of the woods for another week.
Trump himself interrupted a stream of online invective and attacks on opponents to tweet: “FEELING GREAT!”
Such triumphant messaging was echoed by Republican supporters on cable TV and social media but undercut by a confirmed US death toll of more than 210,000 and a caseload over 7.5 million.
Trump also attempted to downplay the dangers of coronavirus but was censured by social media platforms, which slapped a warning message on a tweet comparing the virus to the flu, or removed it altogether.
“This tweet violated the Twitter Rules about spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to Covid-19,” the company said in a label superimposed on Trump’s words.
On Monday night, in a highly choreographed arrival at the White House from Walter Reed national military medical center in Bethesda, Trump attempted to project a message of indomitability.
After a three-day hospital stay, the president stepped off the Marine One helicopter just before 7pm and walked up the south portico staircase. He stopped in front of an illuminated entrance with four US flags, turned to face the south lawn – and brazenly removed his mask while posing for cameras.
Trump waved, gave two thumbs up and saluted as Marine One flew off. A photographer stood close by. Video footage suggested the president was breathing hard. He then waved and walked inside, where masked staff were visible, only to re-emerge for what appeared to be a video shoot.
In the video, which he tweeted soon after, Trump offered bizarrely contrary advice about the virus: “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’re gonna beat it. We have the best medical equipment. We have the best medicines, all developed recently.”
The president added: “Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK. And now I’m better and maybe I’m immune – I don’t know! But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there. Be careful.”
Critics were stunned. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress thinktank, told MSNBC: “I could not imagine a greater act of selfishness by a human being, let alone the president of the United States, who is supposed to protect us. He’s doing the opposite, he’s endangering people around him.”
Trump, who had already admitted he deliberately downplayed the virus for months, announced on Twitter his intention to return to the campaign “soon”. Such messaging appeared to confirm predictions that if Trump stays relatively healthy, he will attempt to use his own experience to again downplay the virus.