Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump's confidence in Esper | 'Angry and appalled' Mattis scorches Trump

Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief says he opposes invoking Insurrection Act for protests | White House dodges on Trump's confidence in Esper | 'Angry and appalled' Mattis scorches Trump

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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: Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Official: Pentagon has started 'prudent planning' for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May US issues Iran sanctions to enforce UN action ignored by international community MORE was in damage-control mode Wednesday as criticism of his role in President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE’s response to the nationwide protests mounted.

In a hastily called news conference at the Pentagon, Esper distanced himself from the White House on the issues of the Insurrection Act and the president's much-maligned photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Esper said he opposes invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law Trump has threatened to invoke in order to send active-duty troops to quell 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."

On the church photo-op, Esper said that while he was aware of the destination when he joined Trump, he was not aware the visit would be used as a photo-op. Esper had said Tuesday he thought he was joining Trump to talk to troops and survey vandalism at a bathroom in Lafayette Square near the church.

 

Putting out one fire, starting another: Questions about Esper’s job stability started being raised shortly after the news conference.

Asked at a White House press briefing Wednesday afternoon whether Trump still has confidence in Esper, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany wouldn’t say.

“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.

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 also 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.”

 

Republicans back Esper: Congressional Republicans stood behind Esper after he broke with Trump on the Insurrection Act.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate GOP aims to confirm Trump court pick by Oct. 29: report The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot MORE (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 ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneBottom line Jerry Carl wins GOP Alabama runoff to replace Rep. Bradley Byrne Jeff Sessions loses comeback bid in Alabama runoff MORE (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 ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot Romney backs pre-election Supreme Court vote, paving way for McConnell, Trump Senate GOP faces pivotal moment on pick for Supreme Court MORE (R-S.D.) described the Pentagon chief’s decision as “the right call” and said the Pentagon should “stay out of the political fray.”

 

Cotton re-ups Insurrection Act support: Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonGOP brushes back charges of hypocrisy in Supreme Court fight Trump uses bin Laden raid to attack Biden Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Ark.) has been among the most vocal lawmakers pushing for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.

In a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday afternoon after Esper’s news conference, Cotton painted a picture of a country descending into “anarchy” and argued only the military can stop it.

“Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd,” Cotton wrote.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” he added.

 

Should I stay or should I go: Even as Esper was voicing his opposition to using active-duty troops to respond to the protests, about 1,600 active-duty soldiers were on standby just outside D.C. ready to enter the capital if ordered.

The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday night that an infantry battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., a military police brigade from Fort Bragg and a military police battalion from Fort Drum, N.Y.

On Wednesday afternoon, The Associated Press reported that soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s immediate response force would be returning to Fort Bragg. The rest of the soldiers were to return home in the coming days if conditions allowed, the report added.

But by early Wednesday evening, the plan was reversed and the Pentagon said all the soldiers were staying in the region.

“It’s a dynamic situation,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyOvernight Defense: Trump's battle with Pentagon poses risks in November | Lawmakers launch Fort Hood probe | Military members can't opt out of tax deferral Lawmakers launch investigation into Fort Hood after 28th death this year Overnight Defense: China aims to double nuclear arsenal | Fort Hood commander removed after string of deaths MORE told the AP, adding the 82nd Airborne troops “will stay over an additional 24 hours and it is our intent — we’re trying to withdraw them and get them back home.”

 

Mattis speaks: Former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden courts veterans amid fallout from Trump military controversies Trump says he wanted to take out Syria's Assad but Mattis opposed it Gary Cohn: 'I haven't made up my mind' on vote for president in November MORE has taken pains not to directly criticize Trump since he resigned in protest over Syria policy in 2018, but no more.

In a statement first published by The Atlantic on Wednesday, Mattis excoriated his former boss. Mattis said he has been “angry and appalled” as he watched this week’s events.

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try,” Mattis said. “Instead he tries to divide us."

"We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.”

 

Service chiefs speak out on Floyd death: Esper’s news conference Wednesday also included his first remarks about the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in police custody that sparked the protests.

Esper called Floyd's death a “horrible crime,” adding “racism is real in America.”

After Esper’s news conference, the chiefs of the Navy and Army issued messages addressing the protests and racial injustice, joining the Air Force chief, who released a message Tuesday night.

“Over the past week, the country has suffered an explosion of frustration over the racial divisions that still plague us as Americans. And because your Army is a reflection of American society, those divisions live in the Army as well,” read the Army’s message, which was signed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston.

“Our ability to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, is founded upon a sacred trust with the American people. Racial division erodes that trust,” they added. “How we respond to the anger that has ignited will chart the course of that trust.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday’s message to his sailors came in a video.

“I will never know what it feels like when you watch that video of Mr. Floyd’s murder. And I can’t imagine the pain and the disappointment and the anger that many of you felt when you saw that. Because it’s not the first time, it’s happened time and time again in our country,” Gilday said.

“I don’t have all the answers, and as CNO I can’t write an order and change a policy that’s going to fix things. So, I thought I’d make a couple of points,” he added. “First right now, I think we need to listen. We have black Americans in our Navy and in our communities that are in deep pain right now. They are hurting.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is Chief Kaleth Wright also followed up their previously released messages Wednesday with a virtual town hall discussion on race

 

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a confirmation hearing over videoconference for several nominees at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/36YW4I7

A House Armed Services Committee subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Future Force Structure Requirements for the United States Navy” at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3cC1bza

 

ICYMI

– The Hill: 21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests

– The Hill: Pentagon, South Korea reach deal on Koreans working at military base

– The Hill: Opinion: The risks of staying in Afghanistan far outweigh the risk of withdrawal

– Defense News: Historic nomination of first black service chief to move forward after lawmaker lifts secret hold

– ProPublica: Trump’s Mar-a-Lago buddy used his “shadow” sway over the VA to promote his comic book empire