GOP leader backs Esper on opposing Insurrection Act

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks MORE (R-S.D.) on Wednesday threw his support behind Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief defends Milley after Trump book criticism | Addresses critical race theory | Top general says Taliban has 'strategic momentum' in war The Biden administration and Tunisia: Off to a good start Overnight Defense: Navy pulls plug on 0 million railgun effort | Esper defends Milley after Trump attacks | Navy vet charged in Jan. 6 riot wants trial moved MORE after the Pentagon chief said he opposes invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy active U.S. military on American soil to quell protests.

“I think that these tasks ought to be relegated as much as possible to the state and local authorities, the law enforcement and police,” Thune told reporters Wednesday when asked about Esper’s opposition to President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE possibly invoking the Insurrection Act.

“You got national guard in the states they can activate. I know there are instances in the past where they’ve had to call up active-duty personnel but I think the goal always is to de-escalate, not escalate. So my view is that’s the right call,” he added.

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Thune said the U.S. military should maintain its longstanding tradition of staying nonpolitical.

“I think the Defense Department by and large ought to stay out of the political fray. They’ve got a job to do and we count on them heavily to do it,” he said.

Esper said at a news conference earlier Wednesday that regular active-duty troops should not be used for domestic policing jobs.

"I've always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations in support of local law enforcement," he said.

Media outlets reported earlier in the week that Trump was considering invoking the 213-year-old law to restore peace in cities wracked by social unrest, including riots and looting, over the police killing of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis.

The president announced Monday that he would mobilize “all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.”

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Esper on Wednesday pushed back on Trump’s consideration of the move, arguing that it should only be used as a “last resort.”

“As a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard, 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," he added. "We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act."

Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have come under criticism from former military leaders for appearing with Trump during a controversial photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday.

The photo op was criticized by Democrats and some Republican senators after U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops used tear gas and pepper balls to forcibly clear a path for Trump and his entourage to the church.

Esper later told NBC News that he had “no idea” that police and guardsmen would use force to disperse the peaceful crowd of protesters that had assembled on H Street between Lafayette Square and the church.

"I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops," Esper told NBC Tuesday.

Esper said he thought he and Milley were going to inspect a vandalized bathroom near the church.

"I didn't know where I was going," he said. "I wanted to see how much damage actually happened."

Thune on Wednesday defended Esper for walking to the church with Trump.

“If he was there unknowingly, then I don’t think you can fault him for being there,” he said.

“It looks like it was a decision a president and his team made and some other people got brought into that when they walked out there, thought maybe it was about something else,” he added.