21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests

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Twenty-one Democratic and independent senators on Wednesday called on the Department of Defense (DOD) not to use U.S. troops to quell the countrywide protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

The lawmakers “express our grave concern” regarding President Trump’s recent threats to invoke the Insurrection Act to use active duty forces or federalize National Guard soldiers to deploy in the United States, according to a letter sent to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. 

“We urge you to refrain from using the United States military to diminish or suppress the peaceful, free expression of Americans who are exercising their civil liberties in a call to hold government institutions to a higher standard in the fight for racial justice,” the senators wrote.

The letter was led by Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Bob Casey (Pa.), and Sherrod Brown (Ohio).

Trump this week has threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that would allow him to use the U.S. military for domestic law enforcement amid the protests and civil unrest. The law 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.

As of Tuesday, governors in 28 states, as well as the District of Columbia, activated a combined 20,400 National Guard soldiers to help with crowd control in the protests, though Trump has dangled using active duty forces if local leaders do not increase law enforcement efforts.

Esper on Wednesday broke with the president in saying he is opposed to the invocation of the law.

“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 Pentagon news conference.

“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.”

The letter also requests that the Pentagon provide information by Friday on whether DOD would deploy federal troops outside of the use of the Insurrection Act, if deployments would ever include combat designated troops, how troops would be trained and prepared, what the mission and rules would entail for any use of force and if they would be authorized to perform arrests.

Esper and Milley have been highly criticized for appearing alongside Trump as he walked from the White House to a damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo-op on Monday. Law enforcement — backed by National Guard troops — used tear gas and smoke bombs to clear the area of peaceful protesters.

Esper on Wednesday attempted to explain his participation, telling reporters that he was aware of Trump’s destination, but that he did not know the visit would be a photo-op, decrying the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man during a police arrest, as a “horrible crime.”

Pressed by reporters why he did not condemn Floyd’s death sooner, Esper said he was attempting to keep the military out of politics.

Tags Bob Casey Department of Defense Donald Trump George Floyd Mark Esper Mark Milley Michael Bennet Sherrod Brown Tammy Baldwin

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