Esper, Milley won’t testify before House panel on military response to protests
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley have refused to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on the military’s role in responding to nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice, a House aide said Friday.
“Staff was advised that [Department of Defense] leadership has refused to testify next week as requested,” the aide said. “In addition, an informal briefing with the secretary of the Army was cancelled for today.”
In a statement Friday evening, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and the 30 other Democratic committee members called Esper and Milley’s decision not to testify “unacceptable.”
“We insist that they appear before our committee,” the statement said. “Our military leaders are sworn to be accountable to the people of this country, and Congress is constitutionally responsible for oversight. They must appear and testify on these crucial matters in order to meet that responsibility.”
“Apparently, the Trump administration believes they have no obligation to explain their actions to Congress or respect our constitutional system of checks and balances,” the lawmakers added.
The Democrats said they expect the Pentagon to brief lawmakers “no later than” Monday, followed “shortly thereafter” by “public, on-the-record testimony” from Esper and Milley.
The Pentagon said it had no comment on Esper and Milley, and referred The Hill to the Army for comment on Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. The Army did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for House Armed Services Committee Republicans said Friday “it is important that the committee hear from the department” about several current missions “that are not part of their normal duties” in order to understand how those missions are affecting “resources and priorities.” Those missions include National Guard deployments responding to unrest and the Pentagon’s coronavirus response.
“The timing of that exchange and the witnesses or briefers must, as always, be coordinated with the department,” spokesman Claude Chafin added in the statement.
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 second-degree murder charges, knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Smith called Tuesday for Esper and Milley to testify before his panel after President Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to quell protests across the country and protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House were forcefully cleared from the area so Trump could walk to a photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Esper and Milley, who was wearing combat fatigues, accompanied Trump to the church Monday.
Also Monday, on a call between Trump and governors, Esper advocated for the governors to “dominate the battlespace” in reference to the protests.
Monday night also saw a National Guard helicopter flying low to the ground 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 an investigation into what happened Monday night.
“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,” Smith said Tuesday in his statement calling for Esper and Milley to testify. “I remain gravely concerned about the President Trump’s seemingly autocratic rule and how it affects the judgement of our military leadership.”
On Wednesday, Esper said he opposes invoking the Insurrection Act, the law Trump had been eyeing to deploy active-duty troops against 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 at a Pentagon news conference. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
About 1,600 active-duty service members were sent to the D.C. region this week to be ready to deploy into the city, but Esper ordered some to go home Thursday and the last of them to go home Friday.
Updated at 7:37 p.m.
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