President Trump is facing increased pressure to enlist the military in America’s battle against the coronavirus, but Pentagon officials are warning against the idea that the armed forces can provide the ultimate answer and law scholars say complex legal questions could await the commander in chief if he pursues such a strategy to its fullest.
Military leaders stressed Tuesday that they’re ready and willing to help as the virus spreads across the U.S. and health officials warn that the worst is yet to come. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Tuesday that the Defense Department is prepared to make available respiratory masks and military ventilators to treat patients, is offering the use of military labs for coronavirus testing and research, and may deploy the medical ships USS Mercy and USS Comfort.
Across the nation, governors are activating National Guard troops to assist with logistical and medical support, and Mr. Trump suggested Tuesday he’s prepared to enlist the Army Corps of Engineers to assist, particularly in New York. The Corps’ potential mission could include building temporary facilities if the patient count continues to rise.
“We’re starting the process, we hope it’s not going to be necessary but it could be necessary,” the president told reporters at the White House. “The Army Corps of Engineers is ready, willing and able … [and] we think that we can have quite a few units up very rapidly.”
But that’s hardly enough for critics. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has urged the White House to further mobilize the military, echoing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden from the weekend’s Democratic primary debate.
“I would call out the military now,” the Democratic presidential front-runner said.
While Mr. Biden offered no specifics, the options could range from logistical and technical support missions already under way to more extreme scenarios such as enforcing quarantines in hard-hit areas, setting up and patrolling roadblocks, preventing interstate travel if governors close their borders, or quelling riots and widespread looting if the virus sparks a full-blown societal meltdown.
Legal and military specialists say the president and Pentagon leaders must exercise extreme caution. The Pentagon certainly can bring to the table resources unmatched by virtually any other body in the country — including the ability to quickly move huge amounts of personnel and equipment, but the military by its very nature is focused on combat missions and protecting the nation’s national security, not responding to domestic crises or acting as a de facto medical response team.
Overextending the military’s mission or asking it to conduct controversial, legally murky missions, they say, invites an entirely new wave of problems.
“Military medical capabilities are scaled for the size of the armed forces and the dependents of those serving, and no more. They are also optimized not for infectious disease control, but for addressing battlefield trauma, as well as medical conditions involved with a young, generally healthy patient population,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Dunlap, now the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University. “Yes, the military’s hospital ships can project medical services to places near the water, but to man these ships requires pulling about 1,200 medical providers from a military system already under strain. This could mean that thousands of military dependents would have their appointments canceled, and be forced onto the civilian medical system. It really is a zero-sum situation.”
Indeed, military leaders seem keenly aware of the dangers that men and women in uniform, along with their families, could face if huge amounts of resources are suddenly diverted to the civilian population.
“We’ve got to be very careful … that we aren’t robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak,” Mr. Esper said Tuesday. “In some ways we want to be the last resort.”
Other top military officials have tried to walk a fine line between offering assistance and also making clear that the nationwide response to the coronavirus outbreak must be civilian-led, with the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, and other arms of the federal government driving the effort.
“What we’re trying to be very careful of is not overpromising,” Joint Staff Surgeon Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs told reporters at the Pentagon this week.
Should the outbreak spread and restrictions on Americans’ movements intensify, governors could seek to use National Guard troops — or perhaps even active-duty forces — to enforce curfews and quarantines or in some cases physically block travel. The longstanding Posse Comitatus Act prevents troops from acting domestically except in instances where they’re supporting other agencies, such as aiding FEMA during natural-disaster response efforts.
The National Guard is not bound by those rules, however, and theoretically could be called on by governors to enforce curfews or to fulfill other missions if the situation worsens.
In a worst-case scenario, legal specialists say the president could cite the 1807 Insurrection Act and call on active-duty forces to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Such a move would seemingly give troops the legal authority to perform some law-enforcement functions, though specialists say it would be a risky proposition with long-term ramifications for society.
“Active-duty troops are not trained or well-suited for domestic law enforcement roles,” Gen. Dunlap said. “The inevitable friction with the civilian population that would result would jeopardize the military’s standing as the most trusted institution in an American society, the loss of which would plainly undermine the military’s ability to recruit and retain troops in a force that depends upon volunteers.”