Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperMilley and China — what the Senate really needs to know Biden, Trump battle over who's to blame for Afghanistan Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief defends Milley after Trump book criticism | Addresses critical race theory | Top general says Taliban has 'strategic momentum' in war MORE said Wednesday he does not support invoking a law that would allow President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE to use the U.S. military for domestic law enforcement amid nationwide protests surrounding the death of George Floyd.
Esper's remarks represent a break with the president, who has threatened to deploy active-duty troops to quash protests if governors do not “dominate” the demonstrators.
"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," Esper said at a news conference Wednesday.
"I say this not only as secretary of Defense, but also 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."
Protests have spread nationwide since last week when Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Some of the protests have turned violent or taken place amid looting.
As of Tuesday, governors in 28 states, as well as the District of Columbia, activated their National Guards to help with crowd control, with the National Guard Bureau saying Tuesday that 20,400 soldiers were responding to “civil unrest.”
The U.S. military is generally banned from conducting law enforcement on U.S. soil, but the 1807 Insurrection Act can override that prohibition. It was last used in 1992 by former President George H.W. Bush at the request of California’s governor to quell the Rodney King riots.
Esper’s comments in opposition to using the Insurrection Act come after the Pentagon confirmed that several active-duty Army units have been sent to the D.C. region and are on standby to enter the capital if deemed necessary.
In a statement Tuesday night, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said an infantry battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., a military police brigade from Fort Bragg and a military police battalion from Fort Drum, N.Y., are “postured on military bases in the National Capital Region but are not in Washington DC.”
The combined 1,600 troops "are on heightened alert status but remain under Title X authority and are not participating in defense support to civil authority operations,” he added.