WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he opposes using military forces for law enforcement in containing current street protests, tamping down threats from President Donald Trump, who had warned states he was willing to send troops to “dominate” the streets.
Less than 48 hours after the president threatened to use the Insurrection Act of 1807 to contain protests if governors were not able to get a handle on unrest, Esper said it 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.”
Esper, at Trump’s encouragement, had already authorized the movement of about 1,300 active-duty Army units to military bases just outside the nation’s capital, but they have not entered the city — and defense officials said some of the troops were beginning to return to their home bases Wednesday.
White House officials indicated even before Esper’s comments that Trump was backing away from invoking the Insurrection Act. At the same time, the president was taking credit for the deployment of federal and other 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 himself 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.
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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 Tuesday, a handful of Republicans expressed concern that law enforcement officers risked violating the protesters’ First Amendment rights.
The situation in Washington had escalated Monday, becoming a potent symbol of Trump’s policing tactics and a physical manifestation of the rhetorical culture war he has stoked since before he was elected. Nearly 30 minutes before a 7 p.m. curfew in Washington, U.S. Park Police repelled protesters with what they said were smoke canisters and pepper balls.
The clampdown followed a weekend of demonstrations outside the White House. Trump had been furious about images juxtaposing fires set in the park outside the executive mansion with a darkened White House in the background, according to current and former campaign and administration officials. He was also angry about the news coverage revealing he had gone to the White House bunker during Friday’s protests.
In a Monday address in the Rose Garden, he called on governors to ramp up the National Guard presence to tamp down the protests. If they didn’t, Trump said, he would dispatch the military to their states — a step rarely taken in modern American history.
On Monday, 715 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the capital area in case the situation in Washington escalated. They were stationed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Two more 82nd Airborne battalions, totaling 1,300 soldiers, were on standby at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, according to documents reviewed by the AP.
Administration officials were privately acknowledging that Monday’s events didn’t serve the administration well. Some Republican lawmakers, typically in lockstep with the president or at least refrain from publicly criticizing him, said Trump had gone too far in appearing to use force to clear the way for his visit to the church.
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police,” said Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. “But there is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said of Trump posing for photos holding up a Bible, “I just wish he opened it once in a while.”
It was Attorney General William Barr who gave the order for law enforcement to clear out the protest before Trump’s walk to the church ahead of Washington’s 7 p.m. curfew. A person familiar with the matter said the decision was made earlier Monday, but had not been executed by the time Barr arrived in Lafayette Park to survey the scene. He verbally gave the order at that time.
AP writers James LaPorta in Delray Beach, Florida, Jonathan Lemire in New York, Michael Balsamo in Washington and Sarah Blake Morgan in West Jefferson, North Carolina, contributed.