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GOP leader backs Esper on opposing Insurrection Act

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats cut deals to bolster support for relief bill Senate GOP will force clerks to read bill to delay COVID-19 relief vote Parliamentarian strikes down Pelosi priority in aid package MORE (R-S.D.) on Wednesday threw his support behind Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperCORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report Female generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report Overnight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command 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 TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee 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.