House chairman presses Pentagon leaders on use of military against DC protesters

House chairman presses Pentagon leaders on use of military against DC protesters
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is calling for answers from Pentagon leaders about the use of the military in Washington, D.C., in response to protests against police violence and racial injustice.

“I write you today to express my continued, grave concern about the use of military forces in response to peaceful protestors in the District of Columbia, the movement of active duty troops to staging areas around the country’s capital and plans to deploy active duty troops around the United States should the president invoke the Insurrection Act,” Smith wrote in a letter Wednesday to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperHouse panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal House panel votes to ban Confederate flag at Pentagon property Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown MORE and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.

Smith’s letter comes a day after he called on Esper and Milley to testify before his panel at an in-person hearing next week.

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Earlier Wednesday, Esper said he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law Trump has threatened to use to deploy active-duty troops to quell protests across the country.

In D.C., the Pentagon has positioned more than 1,000 active-duty soldiers just outside the city to be ready to move into the capital if ordered.

Meanwhile, on Monday night, law enforcement officers used batons, flash-bang grenades and chemical agents to forcibly clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters so President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE, accompanied by Esper and Milley, could walk to a church across from the White House for a photo-op. Esper said Wednesday the National Guard was not involved in clearing the park.

Monday night also saw National Guard helicopters flying low to the ground on streets in D.C. to clear protesters in a move reminiscent of the military’s show-of-force tactic for clearing insurgents overseas. The D.C. Guard announced Tuesday night it would conduct an investigation into what happened.

“As you are well aware, the role of the United States military in support of domestic law enforcement is strictly limited by law,” Smith wrote in his letter. “It must not be used in violation of those limits. I remain unconvinced that this fundamental premise is fully understood by the administration in light of the events in Lafayette Square, the movement of active duty troops to staging areas just outside Washington, D.C., and the apparent use of military aviation to disperse protestors on the night of June 1, 2020.”

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Smith asked for answers to a couple dozen questions by June 9, including what the Pentagon’s plans are to use active-duty military for law enforcement, what the mission of troops moved to the D.C. region is, who is commanding the D.C. National Guard and what role the Guard had in the Lafayette Park episode.

“I look forward to your prompt responses and continued engagement on important issues like this,” Smith wrote. “It is imperative our military continue to be one of the most highly regarded public institutions as they ‘support and defend the Constitution,’ the document that binds together the fabric of this great nation.”

Asked for comment on the letter, the Pentagon referred The Hill to the transcript for Esper's news conference earlier Wednesday, adding that "we will respond directly to the author of the letter."

Updated at 8:19 p.m.