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 EsperCORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report Female generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report Overnight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command MORE was in damage-control mode Wednesday as criticism of his role in President TrumpDonald TrumpSouth Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Ex-Trump aide Pierson won't run for Dallas-area House seat House Oversight panel reissues subpoena for Trump's accounting firm 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 RomneyOn The Money: Tanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief | Relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority | Senate confirms Biden's picks for Commerce, top WH economist Romney released from hospital after fall over the weekend Kinzinger: Trump just wants to 'stand in front of a crowd and be adored' 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 ByrneTrump's Slovenia Ambassador Lynda Blanchard jumps into Alabama Senate race Mo Brooks expresses interest in running for Shelby's Senate seat Ex-Rep. Mike Conaway, former aide launch lobbying firm 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 whip: Murkowski's vote on Tanden is 'fluid' at the moment GOP says Ron Klain pulling Biden strings Rick Scott acknowledges Biden 'absolutely' won fair election 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 CottonSenate confirms Rouse as Biden's top economist Scarborough tears into 'Ivy League brats' Cruz, Hawley for attacking 'elites' Judiciary Committee greenlights Garland's AG nomination 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: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command Capitol Police chief apologizes, admits to department's failures in riot DC National Guard commander says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot 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 MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction 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




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



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