Top Pentagon Policy Official Tests Positive for Coronavirus

Trump loyalist Anthony Tata’s positive diagnosis came as officials have noted a relaxation of mask wearing inside the Pentagon.

This picture taken December 26, 2011 shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC.
This picture taken December 26, 2011 shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. AFP via Getty Images

The Defense Department’s temporary top policy official, retired officer and conspiracy theorist Anthony Tata, has tested positive for coronavirus after meeting with a foreign official infected with the virus who recently visited the Pentagon, adding even more turmoil to a building still rattled by outgoing President Donald Trump’s recent purge of top officials.

Tata, who was elevated to perform the duties of undersecretary of defense for policy last week after Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller fired his predecessor, tested positive for the virus after meeting with Lithuanian Minister of Defense Raimundas Karoblis. The Lithuanian Embassy notified the Pentagon on Thursday that Karoblis had contracted COVID-19.

Tata will quarantine at home for the next two weeks but Miller and service secretaries who met with Karoblis will continue attending meetings at the Pentagon.

“The Department has learned much over the last 10 months of COVID, and even recently we have recommitted to fastidiously following the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines with respect to mitigation measures—face coverings, social distancing, contact tracing, hand washing and virtual engagements among others,” Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement Thursday night after Bloomberg first reported that Tata had contracted the virus.

While the Pentagon has publicly made the case that it has become more watchful of CDC guidelines for coronavirus, two officials inside the building said on condition of anonymity that the routine use of masks under Tata’s predecessor James Anderson has fallen by the wayside, with Tata and other Trump loyalists often eschewing them.

Though fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper had frequently worn masks during public events and in meetings with foreign leaders, Miller and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who is performing the duties of both undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the Pentagon’s top civilian oversight role of special forces, also removed their masks for a close-quarters photo-op at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina on Wednesday. The masking policy had been under strain in the weeks leading up to Anderson’s ouster, as the Pentagon’s new White House Liaison Joshua Whitehouse drew complaints for frequently entering the policy office without wearing a mask or testing his temperature.

In a statement, a Pentagon spokesperson said that Tata would continue to serve in his job while quarantining at home “similar to the way many in the Pentagon, including senior leadership, have worked remotely as the Pentagon reduced its footprint in response to COVID-19.” His deputy, Thomas Williams, will cover day-to-day requirements at the Pentagon.

According to a memo on the order of succession in the policy shop signed by Miller last week and obtained by Foreign Policy, Williams—a former career official bumped up several levels from a National Security Council post this year—is tasked to perform the duties of undersecretary if Tata is incapacitated, while Michael Cutrone, who came into the Pentagon in May as officials first began to fear purges of people seen as disloyal to Trump, would be in line to perform the duties of deputy undersecretary.

The memo also removes from succession two Senate-confirmed officials, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities Victorino Mercado and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Kenneth Rapuano. Mercado had previously served as acting deputy undersecretary in the policy shop and officials said he is helping Miller’s freshly minted deputy chief of staff Joe Francescon, a Trump loyalist who was a lower-ranking civil servant just six months ago, learn on the job while Kash Patel, the new chief of staff, has carved out a role as a so-called body man. Instead, Miller has placed Jennifer Walsh, Rapuano’s top deputy, in succession to lead the policy shop.

Miller, a former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, has also been emphasizing his credentials in meetings with senior officials amid concerns he’s not qualified to lead the Pentagon, officials said. Despite making major policy changes in his first week as acting secretary, including a drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and making the assistant secretary of defense for special operations report directly to the Pentagon chief, he has not taken any on-the-record questions from the press. He ignored questions from reporters after making a statement on the troop withdrawals on Tuesday and during a bilateral meeting on Thursday.

Update, Nov. 20, 2020: This article was updated to provide further details from a Pentagon spokesperson.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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