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Overnight Defense: Trump's move to use military in US sparks backlash | Defense officials take heat | Air Force head calls Floyd's death 'a national tragedy'

Overnight Defense: Trump's move to use military in US sparks backlash | Defense officials take heat | Air Force head calls Floyd's death 'a national tragedy'
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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday blasted President Trump’s reliance on the military to respond to protests and riots over police violence and racial injustice.

“At a time when our nation is hurting, the president continues to forgo any effort to calm tensions, as we had all hoped he would,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithGovernors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final defense policy bill Bottom line A long overdue discussion on Pentagon spending MORE (D-Wash.) said in a statement Tuesday.

“Instead he used force to remove peaceful protesters to stage a photo opportunity. Instead of taking a moment of silence in front of the historic St. John's Episcopal Church to pray for the lives lost, he gathered his cronies to take a picture. Instead of doing the right thing, he once again did the absolute wrong thing,” Smith said.

The chairman added that he has “serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protesters,” and that he has “called for Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings Trump campaign event use of Marine Corps helicopter raises ethics questions The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Smart or senseless for Biden to spend time in Georgia, Iowa? MORE and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to testify before our committee to explain this domestic engagement to the American people.”

Context: The comments came after a night when active-duty military police were sent to the D.C. region to be on standby, video of military helicopters flying low over D.C. to disperse protesters spread online and law enforcement used pepper balls and smoke canisters to clear protesters from a park near the White House so Trump could walk to a photo op at a nearby church.

In a speech Monday evening, Trump also said “thousands and thousands” of troops were descending upon D.C. and threatened to deploy the military throughout the country if governors do not quell the protests.

Protests, some of which have turned violent or taken place amid looting, have spread across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was died in Minneapolis police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Concerns over use of military: Several Democrats who served in the military expressed concern Monday about Trump turning to the Armed Forces.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine Corps veteran, called on service members to “lay down [their] arms” if Trump “chooses to abuse the military.”

“We are a nation founded in dissent, birthed in freedom, committed to equality, and yet regularly reminded that we struggle to achieve all three. The President has made it clear that the fight for these Constitutional principles is a fight against himself,” Moulton tweeted.

“And if he chooses to abuse the military as a tyrant would do — to stifle dissent, suppress freedom, & cement inequality — then I call on all our proud young men & women in uniform, as a veteran & a patriot, to lay down your arms, uphold your oath, & join this new march for freedom,” Mouton added in another tweet.

Esper and Milley take heat: Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley have also stoked ire for their response to the crisis.

Esper was heard in leaked audio of a call between Trump and governors advocating for the governors to “dominate the battlespace.”

Trump also said on the call he would put Milley — who is outside the chain of command and whose formal job is senior military adviser to the president — “in charge” of the protest response. Milley was seen in Army fatigues walking with Trump to the St. John’s Episcopal Church photo-op.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official, said veterans should “speak out and stand up for the core values they believe in.”

“I worked with General Milley at the Pentagon and I hope he’s thinking seriously about the moral and ethical issues surrounding his role in the coming days,” she tweeted.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran, asked Milley in a one-sentence letter he shared on Twitter on Monday night if he “intend[s] to obey illegal orders from the President.”

“Trump says Chairman Milley is in charge. We need to know whether he intends to uphold his oath,” Gallego added in a second tweet.

Trump’s allies defend military use: Trump’s allies in Congress, however, defended his use of the military.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) praised Milley, who was filmed meeting with National Guardsmen on D.C. streets Monday night, for his help. Cotton has called for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military to stop the protests.

“There’s no one better equipped to handle a crisis like this than General Milley,” Cotton tweeted. “Our thanks to him, our troops and federal law enforcement for their help in DC last night.”

Kaine plans amendment: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Tuesday he will introduce an amendment to the annual defense policy bill seeking to block Trump from deploying the military against protesters.

The move from Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, comes after Trump threatened to deploy the military in response to demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice. The senator said he will introduce the amendment when the Senate panel takes up the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) next week.

“I never thought we would have to use the NDAA to make clear that the U.S. military shouldn’t be used as an agent of force against American citizens who are lawfully assembling,” Kaine said in a statement Tuesday. “I thought that would seem obvious to everyone. But as we take up the NDAA next week, I’m going to be pushing to ensure the president can’t treat the U.S. military as his personal palace guard to try to ward off peaceful protests.”

In a video released with his statement, Kaine said the amendment would block funding to the Pentagon to “marshal forces against protesters or American citizens.”

 

ESPER, MILLEY ‘NOT AWARE’ OF TRUMP’S CHURCH PHOTO-OP AHEAD OF TIME: Senior Pentagon officials did not know ahead of time they would accompany President Trump during his heavily criticized Monday evening photo-op in front of a vandalized church, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley — who both followed behind Trump on his walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church after law enforcement cleared the area of peaceful protesters — had been at the White House to update the president on military readiness, a senior defense official told reporters from multiple outlets.

The explanation: “As that meeting concluded, the president indicated an interest in viewing the troops that were outside, and the secretary and chairman went with him to do so,” the official said.

About 1,200 National Guard troops as well as active-duty military police were activated in the nation’s capital to back up law enforcement, who used tear gas and smoke bombs to clear protesters from Lafayette Square before the city's 7 p.m. curfew so Trump could walk to and from the church.

Esper and Milley “were not aware that the park police and law enforcement had made a decision to clear the square, and once they began that walk off the White House grounds with the president, they continued with him,” the official said. 

Esper shortly thereafter appeared alongside Trump and other administration officials for photographs in front of the church. 

Milley later walked the streets of Washington, D.C., to survey the National Guard's curfew enforcement, saying the military was there to protect freedom of speech and that he was “seeing how well they're doing.”

The two top Pentagon officials have since been heavily criticized for their presence.

 

AIR FORCE HEAD CALLS GEORGE FLOYD’S DEATH ‘A NATIONAL TRAGEDY’: Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein in a new memo calls the death of George Floyd a “national tragedy” and has vowed to do more to fix racial inequality in the military.

In the memo, sent to Air Force commanders on Monday night, Goldfein denounced the actions of Minneapolis police after Floyd died in their custody. A video showed the unarmed black man saying he couldn’t breath as an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, with his death sparking nationwide protests.

“The death of George Floyd is a national tragedy. Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020,” Goldfein said.

“We all wish it were not possible for racism to occur in America, a country founded on the sacred ideal that 'all men (and women) are created equal' and have the 'unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' But it does, and we are at a moment where we must confront what is,” Goldfein continued.

An impassioned plea: The memo follows comments made by Kaleth Wright, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, who on Monday shared his struggle against racism.

“What happens all too often in this country to Black men who are subjected to police brutality that ends in death…could happen to me. As shocking as that may sound to some of you,” Wright, the highest-ranking enlisted man in the Air Force, wrote in a Twitter thread.

Wright also said he struggles “with the Air Force’s own demons that include the racial disparities in military justice and discipline among our youngest Black male Airmen and the clear lack of diversity in our senior officer ranks.”

An independent review: Goldfein acknowledged Wright’s comments in his memo, and also announced that he and Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett have directed the Air Force’s Inspector General “to do an independent review of our legal system, racial injustice, and opportunities for advancement.”

“To the Airmen who are mourning, angry, or weary of the battle against racial prejudice, discrimination, bias, and systemic discrimination, Chief Wright and I recognize your pain,” Goldfein wrote.

Bias in the system: Goldfein’s message also comes less than a week after the Air Force acknowledged “persistent and consistent” bias against black airmen in its judicial system in internal documents, first reported by the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.

 

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Heritage Foundation will hold a webinar on “A Nuclear Anniversary: The U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Deal 15 Years Later” with former U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma at 10 a.m.

The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association will hold a webcast on “Harnessing 5G for Military Operations” with Joseph Evans, technical director for 5G at the Defense Department, and Frederick Moorefield, deputy chief information officer for command, control  and communications at the Defense Department, at 11:30 a.m.

 

ICYMI

– The Hill: VA initiates process to remove headstones with Nazi symbols

– The Hill: Top Air Force enlisted officer speaks out on racial injustice: 'I am George Floyd'

– The Hill: Five things to know about Trump's legal power under the Insurrection Act

– The Hill: Joint Chiefs chairman walks DC streets amid protests: We protect freedom of speech

– The Hill: Cities brace for another night of possible unrest

– The Hill: Customs and Border Patrol deploys troops to DC

– The Hill: EU foreign policy chief says US can invite Russia as 'guest' to G-7

– The Hill: Europe 'appalled' by death of George Floyd, says EU foreign policy chief