White House sidesteps questions about Trump’s confidence in Pentagon chief
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany sidestepped questions Wednesday on whether President Trump still has confidence in Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the Pentagon chief publicly broke with Trump on using active-duty troops to quell nationwide protests.
“With regard to whether the president has confidence, I would say if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I’m sure you all will be the first to know,” McEnany told reporters at a White House press briefing.
Pressed again on whether Trump has confidence in Esper, McEnany replied that “as of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper. And should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future.”
McEnany gave a similar response when asked about Trump’s confidence in FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has come under increasing fire from Republicans who feel he has not been willing to make changes to the agency after an internal watchdog report found errors in surveillance warrant applications.
“At this moment, the FBI director, much like the secretary of Defense, is the FBI director, is the secretary of Defense,” she said. “If the president decides he no longer has confidence, you guys will be the first to know.”
Protests have spread nationwide since last week when George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in Minneapolis police custody. An officer, who now faces third-degree murder charges, knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Some of the protests have turned violent and involved looting.
Earlier Wednesday, Esper announced at a Pentagon news conference he opposes invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that would allow Trump to deploy active-duty troops around the country to respond to the protests.
“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,” Esper said. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
The statement marked a public break from Trump, who has threatened to deploy troops to quash protests if governors do not “dominate” the demonstrators.
McEnany said she is not aware of Esper telling Trump in private about his views on the Insurrection Act and added later that Trump has the “sole authority” to invoke it.
“It is definitely a tool within his power,” she said. “If needed, he will use it. But at this time, he’s relying on surging the streets with National Guard. It’s worked with great effect here in D.C. and in Minnesota as well.”
Esper also used his press conference to distance himself from Trump’s photo-op Monday outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, which came after police aggressively cleared the area of peaceful protesters.
A day after the photo-op, Esper and Pentagon officials said he didn’t know the destination when accompanying Trump. Esper told reporters he was aware the group was going to the church but that he did not know the visit would be used as a photo-op.