Military officials downplayed worries Friday after President Donald Trump announced overnight that he had tested positive for coronavirus and will be forced into medical quarantine for an undetermined period of time.
In a statement, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they have not made any adjustments to force posture or operations as a result of the president’s diagnosis. Trump tweeted just after midnight on Friday that both he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive and would begin their “recovery process” immediately.
“There’s been no change to our alert levels,” the statement said. “The U.S. military stands ready to defend our country and its citizens. There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces.”
“There’s been no change to [Defense Department] alert levels,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “The U.S. military stands ready to defend our country and interests. There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces. Our national command and control structure is in no way affected by this announcement.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is currently on an official visit to Morrocco, last saw Trump on Sunday, at a Gold Star families event also attended by Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hoffman said.
“In preparation for and as part of his international travel, Secretary Esper tested negative for COVID on Monday and Wednesday of this week,” Hoffman said. “Today he will be tested again as planned for continuation of his travel. He will not be returning to the U.S. early. The chairman was tested this morning and was negative.”
Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, as well as Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond also attended the event for Gold Star families, said Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Malinda Singleton on Friday. All have tested negative for coronavirus twice over the past week, including before the event and as recently as Friday, and have exhibited no COVID symptoms.
The Gold Star Families event also is where Commandant Gen. David Berger last interacted with the president. Berger has tested negative “several times” during the past week, Maj. Eric Flanagan, a spokesman for the commandant, told Marine Corps Times in a Friday email.
Retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who commanded both U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, told Military Times that no changes in how the military operates in this situation are likely.
“There is a well established chain of command that goes through the SECDEF,” he wrote in an email. “The Constitution provides for continuity in the case that the President is incapacitated — which it appears is not the situation at this point. I can’t imagine anything in particular is going on in this regard (contingency planning) — our military leadership is very resilient as is our national security decision making process.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mike Jones, who served as U.S. Central Command chief of staff in 2011 under then-commander James Mattis, told Military Times it is unlikely anything will change at the combatant command level.
“Beyond being ever vigilant that a potential enemy could miscalculate and do something stupid, which is part of every day life, I doubt the COCOMs do anything special,” Jones said. “The vice president stays well informed on national security issues and is prepared to take over for an incapacitated president. So I doubt much special is going on at CENTCOM. The only issue is when incapacitation is official and when the “football” (nuclear codes) go to the VP, but there are procedures for that and CENTCOM isn’t involved.”
Earlier on Thursday, Trump announced that one of his senior advisers, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for the illness, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans over the last seven months and more than 1 million individuals worldwide.
In a Fox News appearance Thursday night, Trump suggested that Hicks may have contracted the illness from a member of the military during a recent campaign stop.
“It’s very, very hard when you are with people from the military or law enforcement, and they come over to you, and they want to hug and want to kiss you because we really have done a good job for them,” he said. “You get close and things happen.”
Trump has not held any official rallies or meetings at military bases in recent weeks, but has traveled through Joint Base Andrews, Md., nearly every day this week en route to other events around the country.
One of those was Tuesday’s first presidential debate in Ohio, where the president, members of his family and a number of campaign staff members (including Hicks) were present.
It is not clear whether any of the group were symptomatic or exhibiting signs of illness at that time. White House pool reporters attending that event said that most members of the president’s entourage refused to wear a mask at the indoor event, while most of the family and staff accompanying former Vice President Joe Biden did.
During the debate, Trump pushed back on accusations he had not taken enough personal precautions to avoid the fast-spreading virus.
“I think masks are okay,” he said. “I put a mask on when I think I need it. Tonight, as an example, everybody’s had a test and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to. But I wear masks.”
Staff for Vice President Mike Pence said Friday morning that he has not tested positive for coronavirus, and “remains in good health.” White House officials did not immediately outline what new responsibilities he may take on while the president is in recovery.
Reporter Meghann Myers and Military Times managing editor Howard Altman contributed to this story.
This is a developing story. Please stay with Military Times for updates.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.