Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump

Congressional Republicans on Wednesday stood behind Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who dramatically broke with President Trump by declaring he opposed deploying U.S. military forces to put down rioting in American cities.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters in the Capitol that Esper “has the right to express his point of view, and the president has his,” while Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) tweeted, “I agree with Secretary Esper.” 

“At this time, there is absolutely no reason to use the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty U.S. forces,” said Byrne, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “That is a tool that should only be used as an absolute last resort.”

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) described the Pentagon chief’s decision as “the right call” and said the Pentagon should “stay out of the political fray.”

“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 in the Capitol on Wednesday.

“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,” Thune added.

The GOP support for Esper comes as at a pivotal moment for the Defense secretary. He was on shaky ground with the president even before he publicly broke with Trump during a news conference at the Pentagon, declaring that using active-duty military personnel in a law enforcement role should be done only as a “last resort” and that the current civil unrest, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, did not constitute such a situation.

Sources told The Hill and other news outlets that his high-profile disagreement with the president Wednesday did not go over well with Trump’s inner circle.

Two days earlier, Trump stood in the Rose Garden and threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy U.S. military troops around the country to quell rioting, looting, arson and violence that have spun off from mostly peaceful protests against police brutality.

“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump said.  

Democratic leaders cried foul, calling them the words of an authoritarian dictator. But many Republicans — who’ve been reluctant to show any daylight between themselves and Trump, particularly during an election year — also broke with the president on the Insurrection Act threat. 

“Yeah, I wouldn’t be for that, active military,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told reporters.   

“I do,” he replied, when asked if he disagreed with the president.

However, some Republicans are rooting on Trump to unleash a show of force against the rioters and looters who have destroyed buildings, cars and other property, forcing countless retail businesses across the county to close shop and board their windows.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. “But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.”  

Despite their support of Esper’s position on the Insurrection Act, congressional Democrats took the Defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to task for participating in a photo-op with Trump in front of a church near the White House that rioters had tried to burn down.

Trump administration officials ordered police to clear protesters out of the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church before the visit, and they did so using tear gas and rubber bullets.

“I don’t think it was appropriate for Esper and Milley to be there. My first thought was ‘Don’t they have China and Russia to worry about? How do peaceful demonstrations fit into the National Security Strategy the Pentagon is always talking about?’ It doesn’t,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who serves on the Armed Services subcommittee overseeing intelligence and emerging threats, told The Hill.

“Their presence gave credence to the potential use of the Insurrection Act when they should have been doing everything possible to counter its use. Instead, their presence added to the president’s narrative at a critical time,” he added. 

Senate Minority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) stopped just short of calling for Esper to resign, saying it’s not his place to do so. But he quickly added that Esper should “take stock” of what he is doing and see if it “squares with what their understanding of what this country is all about.”

“I don’t believe that if he were to take stock of that he would agree that he ought to continue in office if that’s what he cannot square,” Clyburn said during a Washington Post Live event Wednesday.

With the backing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has demanded that both Esper and Milley testify before his panel about Trump’s threats to deploy U.S. military on American soil.  

“I have serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protestors,” Smith said in a statement. “The role of the U.S. military in domestic U.S. law enforcement is limited by law. It must not be used in violation of those limits and I see little evidence that President Trump understands this fundamental premise.” 

Mike Lillis and Alexander Bolton contributed.

Tags Adam Smith Bradley Byrne Donald Trump House Armed Services Committee Insurrection Act John Thune Mark Esper Mike Braun Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi National Security Strategy Rick Larsen Rose Garden Tom Cotton Trump Threats

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