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Pulled Into Yet Another Political Battle, the Pentagon Finally Pushes Back Against Trump

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Updated: | Originally published:

After nearly two days of criticism, the Pentagon publicly broke with the White House on whether or not to invoke a 213-year old law that would enable President Donald Trump to order thousands of active-duty troops onto U.S city streets to suppress protests.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper held a press conference on Wednesday to say he would prefer not to use troops to quell the violent unrest that has erupted since George Floyd, an unarmed black man died last week in Minneapolis police custody. It marked the first time Esper publicly broke with Trump on a policy issue.

“The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he said at the Pentagon.


The statement comes after days of condemnation from current and former military leaders about the President’s apparent eagerness to brandish the nation’s armed services as a way to crush domestic turmoil. The overriding concern is that Trump is once again wielding the armed forces for personal gain, rather than national interests, and threatening the military’s longstanding reputation for non-partisanship.

“I do everything I can to try and stay apolitical, sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not,” Esper said. “My aim is to keep the department out of politics.”

After Esper’s comments, reports began trickling out that his public stance was not welcomed in the West Wing. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany later told reporters: “As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper. And should the President lose faith we will all learn about that in the future.”

The U.S. military mainly supports local authorities through the National Guard, which is under the control of state governors. Since protests have broken out last week, governors in 31 states and the District of Columbia have activated 30,000 National Guard members to assist state and local law enforcement in support of civil unrest operations.

When and where to use the National Guard is up to states, but in the White House Rose Garden on Monday, Trump said he instructed every governor to “deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,” and if local leaders didn’t take such steps, he said, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

The plain willingness to unleash military violence against American citizens marked a provocative shift from the restraint that has characterized most previous American presidents’ postures toward quelling civil unrest. The strategy of Republican and Democratic Commanders in Chief alike has been to reduce tensions through an openness to dialogue rather than threats to further confrontation. Trump, on the other hand, has harangued governors to get “tough” on protesters. Esper himself urged governors to restore peace through overwhelming force. “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates, and we can get back to the right normal,” he said during a conference call that was leaked to the media.

Esper admitted that wasn’t the right use of language Wednesday at the Pentagon. But the area surrounding the District of Columbia in recent days has resembled a staging area for conflict. Multiple cargo planes, carrying active duty soldiers and supplies from North Carolina and New York, have flown into a military airfield. Members of the National Guard have rumbled around the capital region in armored vehicles to predetermined positions. And twin-engine UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters on Monday swept just above the tree-line over the capital’s streets, blasting an awestruck crowd of protestors below with a downwash of air, debris and fuel exhaust.

Trump’s orders appear straightforward: protect the U.S. against what he calls “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others.” But since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, the U.S. military has been forbidden to take part in domestic law enforcement. To activate active-duty military in this way, Trump says he’s willing to invoke the 213-year-old Insurrection Act, which could allow him to deploy military forces as he saw fit. The act was last invoked in 1992 during the Los Angeles riots after Rodney King was beaten at the hands of police.

The Pentagon confirmed late Tuesday that about 1,600 active duty troops from Fort Bragg, N.C. and Fort Drum, N.Y. had been brought into the region around the District of Columbia. Some of the soldiers come from military police units. However, law enforcement isn’t a mission that many of the other troops are trained or equipped to do.

For example, the 82nd Airborne Division sent soldiers to the Washington area Monday night, as part of what’s called an “Immediate Response Force.” The unit, which, like the others, is currently on standby status waiting to be called upon, is made up of active duty combat infantry troops who are trained to kill enemies in a combat zone, not police city streets.

“The military should not be employed during peaceful protests. This is the responsibility of police and local officials,” said Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. Defense Secretary, Republican Senator from Nebraska and Vietnam War veteran. “Often the presence of the military makes a situation worse and more combustible. And the military is put in a very difficult spot.”

National Guard forces have already been involved in one deadly shooting since the nationwide protests began. The troops, along with Louisville police, were breaking up a crowd in a parking lot early Monday morning when someone shot at them shortly after midnight, according to Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad. The troops and police returned fire, killing David McAtee, owner of a barbecue business next to the parking lot. The shooting is currently under investigation.

Michael Mullen, a retired Navy admiral who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a searing essay in The Atlantic on Tuesday that criticized Trump’s handling of the military in the current crisis. “The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws. The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered,” he wrote, adding: “I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.”

Since taking office, Trump has relished the power he wields when he exercises his authority over his military leaders. In one of his first acts as President, he chose the Pentagon as the site to sign an executive order that blocked entry for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. He often speaks about senior military officers with a sense of ownership, referring to them as “my generals.” He’s seized billions of dollars from the military budget to build his border wall with Mexico after Congress blocked funding for the construction project. And he meddled in the cases of several service members accused of war crimes—despite senior officers’ objections—by pardoning the accused troops before their cases had even gone to trial.

Astonishment has become a familiar sentiment at the Pentagon under Trump. And such was the case Monday, a senior defense official told reporters, when Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley left the White House with Trump after he made his speech. “Their understanding was they were walking out of the White House to walk through Lafayette Park to review efforts to quell the protests,” the official said, indicating neither knew that more than a thousand protestors had just been physically cleared out of the park with pepper balls and rubber bullets and police officers swinging riot shields.

The Administration officials walked through the park before Trump stopped in front of the parish house of St. John’s Church, which had been vandalized the night before when protestors ignited a fire in the basement. He stood for pictures and requested his aides, including Esper and Milley, to join. Esper said he didn’t know he was heading for a photo shoot. But in the eyes of many Administration critics, the two men became “props” in a photo-op — whether they were willing or not.

“President Trump’s sycophantic approach to leadership could potentially be infecting the (Defense Department),” said Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. “I don’t think I’ve seen that level of problems at the (Defense Department), but I would like to have that conversation because I am concerned about the way the President seems to think that the U.S. government is his personal valet.”

By Tuesday evening, National Guard members continued to flood into Washington, despite requests from Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser to halt the deployments from outside states. The National Guard confirmed that 1,500 Guard members from Indiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland will be deployed to the city. The additional forces are on top of the 1,300 troops deployed in Washington on Monday night.

Bowser said the idea of adding more troops, particularly active-duty forces, is reckless. “I don’t think the military should be used on the streets of American cities against Americans,” she said. “And I definitely don’t think it should be done for a show.”

—With reporting by Kimberly Dozier

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com