Breaking with President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday he opposes using military forces for law enforcement in containing current street protests.
Esper said the Insurrection Act, which would allow Trump to use active-duty military for law enforcement in containing street protests, should be invoked in the United States “only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”
He declared, “We are not in one of those situations now.”
Invoking the Insurrection Act has been discussed as Trump has talked about using the military to quell violent protests in US cities. Esper has authorized the movement of several active-duty Army units to military bases just outside the nation’s capital, but they have not been called to action.
Just before Esper spoke, Trump took credit for a massive deployment of National Guard troops and federal law enforcement officers to the nation’s capital, saying it offered a model to states on how to stop violence accompanying some protests nationwide.
Trump argued that the massive show of force was responsible for protests in Washington and other cities turning more calm in recent days and repeated his criticism of governors who have not deployed their National Guard to the fullest.
“You have to have a dominant force,” Trump told Fox New Radio on Wednesday. “We need law and order.”
Esper, in his Pentagon remarks, strongly criticized the actions of the Minneapolis police for the incident last week that ignited the protests. In their custody, a black man, George Floyd, died after a white officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Esper called the act “murder” and “a horrible crime.”
Esper has come under fire from critics, including retired senior military officers, for having walked from the White House on Monday evening with Trump and others for a presidential photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had previously sustained damage from protesters.
Esper said that while he was aware they were heading to St. John’s, he did not know what would happen there.
“I was not aware a photo op was happening,” he said, adding that he also did not know that police had forcibly moved peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to clear the way for Trump and his entourage.
Trump put a political spin on his criticism of states with violence. He said, “You notice that all of these places that have problems, they’re not run by Republicans. They’re run by liberal Democrats.”
The Defense Department has drafted contingency plans for deploying active-duty military if needed. Pentagon documents reviewed by The Associated Press showed plans for soldiers from an Army division to protect the White House and other federal buildings if the security situation in the nation’s capital were to deteriorate and the National Guard could not secure the facilities.
But interest in exerting that extraordinary federal authority appeared to be waning in the White House. Though the crackdown on the Washington demonstrations was praised by some Trump supporters on Tuesday, a handful of Republicans expressed concern that law enforcement officers risked violating the protesters’ First Amendment rights.
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