Trump stokes backlash with threat to use military against protesters
President Trump’s threat to deploy active-duty military to quell protests across the country has raised concerns about the appropriateness of using U.S. armed forces to bolster domestic law enforcement and placed the military in an awkward position.
As protests against police violence and racial injustice enter their second week, critics say Trump’s use of uniformed service members to enhance his image as a law-and-order president risks politicizing the military.
Pentagon leaders have also taken heat as they echoed Trump’s rhetoric on “dominating” protesters and accompanied him on controversial tasks such as his photo-op in front of a church Monday.
“This is not a problem that’s solvable by force,” said Jason Dempsey, a civil-military relations expert at the Center for a New American Security.
Trump sees the military “specifically and explicitly as a show of force and bringing government muscle down on rioters and protesters alike,” Dempsey added. “The American police don’t even have the training to police American streets. So under what circumstance do we think soldiers are going to have the training to police American streets?”
The move also raises legal questions, though experts said Trump has wide latitude to deploy troops without permission from states’ governors.
Protests, some of which have turned violent or taken place amid looting, have spread across the country since last week in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Governors in 28 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have activated their National Guards to help with crowd control, with the Guard Bureau saying Tuesday that 20,400 soldiers were responding to “civil unrest.”
Trump, though, is pushing for a fiercer response to quash the protests. In remarks Monday evening, he threatened to deploy troops across the country if governors do not “dominate” the protesters.
In D.C., where Trump can more easily deploy military assets in the absence of a governor, active-duty military police have been deployed to the region from Fort Bragg, N.C., and are on standby to enter the nation’s capital if ordered.
Trump’s threat to dispatch U.S. troops to hot spots around the country is backed by an 1807 statute known as the Insurrection Act. The law has been used sparingly in American history, most recently by former President George H.W. Bush at the request of California’s governor to quell the 1992 Rodney King riots.
The law, which has been amended a number of times since its post-Founding Era passage, creates an exception to the general prohibition on using the U.S. military to enforce domestic laws.
Troops can be deployed at the request of a governor, but presidents also have their own authority to do so without invitation, either to enforce federal law, protect civil rights or quell “insurrection.” Doing so without a governor’s request would require a formal proclamation, which Trump has yet to issue.
“The language of the statute gives the president very broad authority,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
Apart from the legal issues, critics are expressing concern about inflaming tensions by calling on the military while ignoring the racial injustices that sparked the protests as well as risking the military’s image as an apolitical institution.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he spoke with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Monday night but that he has not been briefed on exactly what role the military would play in D.C. or elsewhere.
Smith is calling on Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to testify before his committee in person next week to explain. Until then, Smith said, he hopes condemnations from him and other lawmakers will pressure officials to “tone down the over-the-top rhetoric.”
“If you use the U.S. military, that is further contributing to the idea that this is a war,” Smith told reporters on a conference call. Trump “is talking about going to war with the citizens of the United States of America. And that is troubling, and I am very concerned about what potential role the U.S. military could play in simply amplifying this misguided rhetoric.”
Asked if he still has confidence in Esper’s ability to do his job, Smith declined to answer pending a conversation with the secretary.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday it would be appropriate for Esper and Milley to testify if Trump invokes the Insurrection Act but that right now “it would be difficult, in this situation, for the committee to hold hearings about decisions the president has not made.”
“I am concerned that in the current environment, it would be all too easy to put our men and women in uniform in the middle of a domestic political and cultural crisis,” Thornberry added in a statement. “Discussions regarding the Insurrection Act could easily make them political pawns. The respect, trust and support our troops have earned from their fellow citizens is the foundation of their strength and we must be careful not to erode that strength.”
Esper and Milley have come under fire from critics for their roles in Trump’s response after their appearances with him Monday. Esper was heard in leaked audio of a call between Trump and governors Monday advocating for the governors to “dominate the battlespace.”
Trump also said on the call he would put Milley — who is outside the chain of command and whose formal job is senior military adviser to the president — “in charge” of the protest response.
Esper and Milley, who was wearing Army fatigues, walked with Trump to a photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday evening shortly after law enforcement cleared the area of peaceful protesters by using irritant gas and smoke bombs.
Milley also wore his fatigues to meet with Guardsmen on the streets of D.C. on Monday night. He told reporters his message to the soldiers was to “allow freedom to assemble and the freedom of speech,” but critics blasted the optics of a general walking the streets of the nation’s capital in a combat uniform.
Several retired military officers criticized their successors Monday, including former Joint Chiefs Chairman retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, who wrote on Twitter that “America is not a battleground.” In his own tweet, retired Gen. Tony Thomas, who led Special Operations Command, said Esper’s “battlespace” comment was “not what America needs to hear…ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure.”
Amid the criticism, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has been advocating for using the Insurrection Act, offered Milley support, tweeting Tuesday that “there’s no one better equipped to handle a crisis like this than General Milley.”
“Our thanks to him, our troops and federal law enforcement for their help in DC last night,” Cotton added.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon appeared to be in cleanup mode on Esper’s and Milley’s roles. A senior defense official told reporters on a background call neither was aware of the actions to clear Lafayette Square of protesters, nor had they intended to participate in the St. John’s photo-op.
An official also defended Esper’s use of the word “battlespace,” saying that “nothing should be read into” his use of military terminology.
The explanations did little to stamp out criticism. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a combat veteran, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that Esper and Milley “walking like lapdogs behind a five-time draft dodging coward who is more interested in looking like a leader than actually being one sends a horrifying message to our troops—including our black and brown troops—that our military’s leaders will not protect them from unlawful orders.”
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