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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