Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he opposes using the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops to American cities to quell riots and protests, and he sought to distance both himself personally and the military as a whole from controversial events Monday night outside the White House.
In a hastily arranged press conference at the Pentagon, Mr. Esper said the use of active-duty troops should be a “last resort” for the country, and he does not believe such a course is necessary or appropriate right now.
President Trump earlier this week threatened to invoke the 1807 law if governors do not activate National Guard forces to control crowds and stop widespread looting. Protests have gripped much of the country following last week’s death of George Floyd, a black man, during a confrontation with Minneapolis police.
Mr. Esper also stressed that when he arrived at the White House Monday afternoon he was unaware of President Trump’s plan to take photos outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square. The Pentagon chief distanced the Pentagon from the events leading up to the scene at St. John’s, saying that National Guard forces did not use rubber bullets or tear gas as has been reported, and that he’s ordered a thorough investigation into who ordered a National Guard helicopter to conduct low-flying maneuvers over a crowd of demonstrators.
But Mr. Esper’s strongest comments came when discussing Mr. Trump’s threat to use active-duty troops. The secretary offered a clear break with the president.
“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,” he said. “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
So far, the president has not formally followed through on his threat to invoke the law. National Guard troops are active in dozens of states across the country to assist law enforcement, but no active-duty forces have been mobilized other than in the Washington area.
The president has unique powers to use active-duty forces in the District of Columbia but his authority is much more limited in the 50 states.
Law enforcement personnel took aggressive measures to disperse protesters in front of the White House before Mr. Trump, Mr. Esper and other top administration officials made their way to St. John’s on Monday. Mr. Esper said he had no knowledge of what was being done on the streets outside the White House.
“I was not aware of law enforcement plans for the park,” he said. “I was not briefed on them, nor should I expect to be.”
Mr. Esper also made clear he’s not sure who is responsible for directing a National Guard helicopter to fly low and intimidate demonstrators.
“Within an hour or so of learning of this, I directed the secretary of the Army to conduct an inquiry to determine what happened and why, and report back to me,” he said.
Mr. Esper began the press conference by offering his personal thoughts on the death of Mr. Floyd, the subsequent protests, and systemic racism in the U.S. It was the first time he’s spoken at length about Mr. Floyd’s killing.
“The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime,” he said. “The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder. It is a tragedy we have seen repeat itself too many times.
“Racism is real in America and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it,” Mr. Esper continued. “More often than not, we have led on these issues. And while we still have much to do on this front, leaders across DoD and the services take this response seriously.”
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Trump-Mark Esper rift widens as Pentagon fears being drawn into election
Distrust between the commander in chief and Pentagon leadership has reached a near-unprecedented level, analysts and military insiders say, with both sides of the Potomac eyeing the other anxiously as Election Day draws near. As President Trump publicly bashes his own past and present defense officials and casts them as tools of the military-industrial complex,…
Distrust between the commander in chief and Pentagon leadership has reached a near-unprecedented level, analysts and military insiders say, with both sides of the Potomac eyeing the other anxiously as Election Day draws near.
As President Trump publicly bashes his own past and present defense officials and casts them as tools of the military-industrial complex, Pentagon leaders are working overtime to distance themselves from an increasingly ugly political contest and to ensure they aren’t dragged into any post-election electoral dispute between the incumbent and Democrat Joseph R. Biden.
Taken together, those dynamics have sparked a level of tension and mutual skepticism between the White House and Pentagon that has rarely been seen before, specialists say. The clearest example may be the relationship between Mr. Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, which looks to be chilly at best following a series of high-profile clashes on hot-button policy issues such as the Confederate flag and the military’s role in policing civil unrest.
“There’s just great unease in the Pentagon,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “There’s uneasiness among the professionals there, both military and civilian.”
“Esper is probably uneasy about what the White House might end up asking him to do,” Mr. Townsend told The Washington Times. “But the word also is he’s not going to be around” much longer.
Indeed, there was widespread speculation — and, in some corners, an expectation — that the president would fire Mr. Esper after the Pentagon chief publicly opposed a plan to deploy active-duty military troops to quell riots in American cities over the summer. Mr. Trump ultimately abandoned that plan and Mr. Esper has remained in his job, though it seems likely the president will pick a new defense chief if he wins reelection in November.
Mr. Esper’s uncertain future is one factor that has contributed to the tense situation. Another is the growing fear among current and former military officials that the president could seek to enlist the military for electoral purposes, perhaps to deal with post-election demonstrations.
Other observers believe the military ultimately may have to oust Mr. Trump from the White House if he loses to Mr. Biden but refuses to leave. The president has said he’ll accept the results of a fair election.
There are signs the increasing political outspokenness of ex-military brass is starting to worry those still in the ranks. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, in a recent “State of the Marine Corp” online session organized by Defense One, said even retired military leaders should be careful about offering partisan political opinions.
“When your introduction is ‘retired admiral,’ ‘retired general,’ there is a direct connecting tissue back to those of us who are wearing uniform today, and we must remain apolitical,” he said. “I ask them to be very thoughtful about engaging either side, it doesn’t matter, in partisan politics.”
For their part, the Pentagon’s current top leaders insist they have no intention of wading into politics.
In written answers to lawmakers last month, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley said flatly that the armed forces will have “no role” in the American electoral process.
“I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military,” Gen. Milley said.
Combined with Mr. Esper’s previous opposition to the deployment of active-duty forces to American cities, it’s clear both men want to avoid politics and, unless absolutely necessary, avoid sending troops to clash with fellow American citizens.
“Everybody is keeping their fingers crossed and not knowing what to expect,” Mr. Townsend said of the current environment.
Politics and civil unrest are just the most recent rifts.
As racial unrest gripped much of the nation over the summer after the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in Minneapolis police custody, the Pentagon began a review of 10 Army bases named after Confederate generals. Mr. Trump publicly vowed to block any such changes.
Mr. Esper and other military officials also penned a carefully worded policy that effectively banned the Confederate flag at armed forces installations. The policy did not actually address the specific flag but instead laid out criteria for which banners could be flown — criteria that the Confederacy’s “Stars and Bars” did not meet.
The Pentagon’s delicate handling of the issue helped avoid another public confrontation with the president.
For his part, Mr. Trump has leaned into the distance between himself and Pentagon leaders, appealing to veteran and active-duty voters by criticizing their superiors in unusually blunt terms.
“I’m not saying the military’s in love with me,” Mr. Trump said at a recent news conference. “The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
White House officials sought to add context those comments, suggesting that the president wasn’t referring to Mr. Esper or Gen. Milley specifically but instead speaking about broader issues of military policy and spending.
Mr. Trump argues that he has followed through on a major campaign promise to wind down endless wars in the Middle East, and it’s true that he has significantly reduced America’s military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
But an apparent disconnect between Mr. Trump’s foreign policy approach — a key piece of his hallmark “America First” agenda — and the views of his appointees has only added fuel to the fire.
“America has never seen this level of mutual distrust between the president and his military leaders. Firstly, President Trump appointed Pentagon leaders who opposed him and the America First agenda,” said J.D. Gordon, former Trump campaign national security adviser and Pentagon spokesman. “Never have so many top political appointees been so richly, yet undeservedly rewarded in this country.”
Indeed, some former Trump appointees have now turned into some of his harshest critics. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis is perhaps the best example, with the retired Marine Corps general declaring over the summer that Mr. Trump is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.”
Retired Air Force General Paul Selva, whom Mr. Trump himself re-nominated for a term as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff early in his presidency, was one of nearly 500 military and national security leaders who signed a recent letter strongly endorsing Mr. Biden for president.
‘They don’t trust him’
While Mr. Gordon argued that personnel decisions have been a major contributing factor to today’s antagonistic atmosphere, he said the unconventional Mr. Trump has taken other actions that have deepened the divide.
The president “has at times put his top national security leaders in difficult positions,” Mr. Gordon told The Times. “Whether a photo op after clashing with a civilian mob outside the White House, referring to Secretary Esper as ‘Esperanto,’ which is some made-up international language, or publicly calling out a military-industrial complex, it’s easy to see why they don’t trust him.”
The June 1 clash between law enforcement and protesters in Lafayette Square brought about arguably the clearest break so far between Mr. Trump and top military leaders. After demonstrators were aggressively cleared out of the area, the president walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church and posed for photographs along with other top administration officials, including Mr. Esper.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley also was with Mr. Trump outside the White House, clad in his battle dress uniform, though he was not in the St. John’s photo.
In the days afterwards, both men broke with the president in their own ways. Mr. Esper came out against the president’s proposal to invoke the Insurrection Act and send active-duty forces into American towns.
“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,” the secretary said.
Several days later, Gen. Milley admitted he made a mistake appearing with Mr. Trump.
“I should not have been there,” he said in pre-recorded remarks to the graduating class of the National Defense University on June 11.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” he said. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
Whether by coincidence or design, Mr. Esper was far from the U.S. political spotlight this week as Mr. Trump engaged in his first critical debate with Mr. Biden.
As Washington was consumed Wednesday with the fallout from the contentious debate in Cleveland, Mr. Esper was arriving in Tunisia for a multi-day tour of North Africa that will also take him to Algeria and Morocco this week.
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Mark Esper, Defense chief, effectively bans display of Confederate flag on military properties
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Friday announced a new Pentagon policy that effectively prohibits the display of the Confederate flag at military facilities, but he stopped short of mentioning the specific symbol. In a memo, the Pentagon chief unveiled new guidance authorizing the display of specific flags, including the American flag, flags of the…
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Friday announced a new Pentagon policy that effectively prohibits the display of the Confederate flag at military facilities, but he stopped short of mentioning the specific symbol.
In a memo, the Pentagon chief unveiled new guidance authorizing the display of specific flags, including the American flag, flags of the U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia, military flags, POW/MIA flags, and allied flags, and prohibits the use of “unauthorized flags.” The Confederate flag is not included in the list of authorized flags.
“The flags we fly must accord with the military imperatives of good order and discipline, treating all our people with dignity and respect, and rejecting divisive symbols,” Mr. Esper wrote in the memo.
“That is why we honor the American flag, which is the principal flag we are authorized and encouraged to display.”
The guidance applies to the public display or depiction of flags in all Defense Department workplaces, common access areas and public areas, and bans the display of flags “where the nature of the display or depiction cannot reasonably be viewed as endorsement of the flag” by the Pentagon.
A draft version of the memo had reportedly banned the explicit display of the Confederate flag, but the released memo signals efforts to strike a compromise on the controversial matter.
Mr. Esper’s announcement follows weeks of nationwide anti-racism protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer, and calls for the Confederate flag to be banned from military properties and bases that honor Confederate leaders to be renamed.
The effort saw early support from several branches of the military after the Navy, Marine Corps and several arms of the military abroad announced a ban on the display of the Confederate flag last month.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, in a congressional hearing last week backed efforts to end any and all military practices that portray the Confederacy in a positive light. Glorification of the Confederate cause, he said, is problematic for a military that’s increasingly made up of Black service members.
Mr. Esper said that the new policy “will further improve the morale, cohesion, and readiness of the force in defense of our great Nation.”
The move saw praise from the top Democrats on Capitol Hill including Sen. Jack Reed, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who called it “long overdue.”
“Flags are symbols and this is a symbolic move that demonstrates that racism and discrimination have no place in an organization that requires unity of purpose and action,” the Rhode Island Democrat said in a statement Friday afternoon.
“The military is engaged in serious, meaningful self-examination, action, and reform to address these challenges,” Mr. Reed said. “That long march toward progress must continue.”
Rep. Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that in his announcement, Mr. Esper “clearly codified which flags are permissible for public display across the Department.”
“By omitting the Confederate flag from the list of approved flags, the guidance makes clear that there is no place for that symbol in public DOD settings, which is an important change in policy that I strongly support.”
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Mark Esper, Defense chief, issues diversity memo, wants answers by mid-August
Senior Pentagon officials have until Aug. 15 to tell Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper what they are doing to implement policies to handle questions of racism and discrimination with each of the military services. In a memorandum released Wednesday, Mr. Esper issued several directives that follow recommendations that came from throughout the Department of…
Senior Pentagon officials have until Aug. 15 to tell Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper what they are doing to implement policies to handle questions of racism and discrimination with each of the military services.
In a memorandum released Wednesday, Mr. Esper issued several directives that follow recommendations that came from throughout the Department of Defense.
He wants military officials to review hairstyle and grooming policies for any signs of racial bias. Each military service also is expected to review appearance standards and policies and make “appropriate policy modifications” by mid-September.
The armed forces will no longer include photographs as part of a promotion or command board or any other process involving selecting personnel for assignments or training. All references to race, ethnicity or gender will be removed “to ensure promotion boards and selection processes enable equal opportunity for all.”
Notably absent from Mr. Esper’s memorandum is any mention of the controversy over Army posts named for Confederate generals such as Braxton Bragg or John Bell Hood or the display of the Confederate battle flag.
Mr. Esper also wants an update on the military’s equal opportunity and inclusion policies.
“The (Defense Department) will update its military harassment policy to strengthen protections for servicemembers against inappropriate and intolerable harassing behaviors,” the memorandum stated.
The new policy follows several weeks’ worth of protests and demonstrations throughout the country following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Mr. Esper wrote that prejudice and bias within the U.S. military are not always transparent. He wants officials to increase the frequency of workplace and equal opportunity surveys to gauge their policy’s effectiveness and identify any areas that need improvement.
Mr. Esper also wants monthly updates through the end of the year.
“The actions I am directing are a necessary first step but hard work remains and we will continue to learn as we move forward,” he wrote.
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