Faced with growing outrage within the military about racism and George Floyd’s death, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this morning he opposes using active duty troops against American citizens.
In a surprising scene, Esper stood before the press at a hastily arranged press conference and said “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. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
His comments raised the question of whether President Trump, who had pledged to use active duty troops if necessary, would fire Esper or demand his resignation.
But Esper acted as the depth of feeling among active duty personnel became clear. The first official public statement came when Kaleth Wright, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, penned a moving creed decrying Floyd’s death at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers.
One of the only black wing commanders, Col. Devin Pepper, wrote another with the poignant title, “It Could’ve Been Me.” Pepper is commander of the 460th Space Wing at Buckley AFB. Then, the top officer in the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, in a Facebook post on his official page — which seemed the venue of choice for these public commitments — republished Wright’s piece and said this:
“I don’t have the answers, but I do know there is no room for bigotry, hatred or small mindedness in our force. Period. Every member of our team needs to know we have their back. So let’s start the conversation.”
Esper’s team at the Pentagon began signaling the military’s deepening unease yesterday, when a senior defense official told reporters that the military “would like all of this to stay a National Guard response. We don’t want to see Title X forces. That’s not what we want to do.”
These official statements were uttered while several National Guard units across the country appeared to support protesters’ right to speak by dropping their shields or taking a knee. On top of all that, the commander of the District of Columbia’s National Guard announced an investigation into the use of a low-flying medical evac helicopter to hover low over protesters on Monday night, with the apparent goal of discouraging their gathering in large numbers. Several news outlets have reported that the helicopter acted at Trump’s express orders.
“I hold all members of the District of Columbia National Guard to the highest of standards. We live and work in the District, and we are dedicated to the service of our nation,” Maj. Gen. William Walker said in a statement. “I have directed an immediate investigation into the June 1 incident.”
Walker noted that the DC Guard was activated “at the direction of the President…. to protect the lives and property of our fellow citizens.” Video of the chopper’s actions showed small groups of people being buffeted by the strong downwash.
The military’s distancing from the idea of using active duty forces to quell the domestic unrest undercuts White House messaging that the president wants to keep the option on the table — and the fact that 1,600 active duty troops were rushed to the DC region earlier this week. Dubbed “Task Force 504,” the relocated forces include the 16th Military Police Brigade headquarters from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 91st Military Police Battalion from Fort Drum, New York.
Esper has faced questions over his silence in the wake of the nation-wide protests objecting to police violence and systemic racism, even as some of his subordinates began speaking out. He used Wednesday’s press conference to state outright that “the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime.”
Esper further drew a line between the Pentagon and many conservative voices calling on Trump to flood the streets of Washington with active duty troops. “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort,” Esper said, “and only in the most urgent and dire situations. We are not in one of those situations right now.”
Esper was challenged on a number of issues relating to the president’s surprise photo-op in front of St. John’s Church, one block from the White House, with most of his Cabinet, including Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, in tow.
Esper and Milley’s presence at such an overtly political event drew fire from civilians and several recently retired generals, compounding the harsh criticism that followed remarks Esper made earlier in the day comparing US cities to a battlefield.
Esper explained that he tries to stay out of events that “appear political,” in keeping with the apolitical tradition of the US military that leaders hold dear. But he conceded today that “sometimes I’m successful at doing that and sometimes I’m not as successful.”
Perhaps the sharpest reaction to Esper’s appearance at the Church of the Presidents came from former defense policy undersecretary Jim Miller, who took to the pages of the Washington Post to tender his resignation from the Defense Science Board:
“When I joined the Board in early 2014, after leaving government service as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, I again swore an oath of office, one familiar to you, that includes the commitment to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States . . . and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
“You recited that same oath on July 23, 2019, when you were sworn in as Secretary of Defense. On Monday, June 1, 2020, I believe that you violated that oath.”
Miller ended his letter with this sobering quote: “The sanctity of the U.S. Constitution, and the lives of Americans, may depend on your choices.”
Esper also claimed ignorance over the violent clearing of peaceful protesters in the president’s path minutes before striding out of the White House, and for the staged pictures in front of the church in which Trump brandished a Bible.
“I did know we were going to the church,” Esper said. “I did not know a photo op was happening. … I do everything I can to try to stay apolitical and to try and stay out of situations that may appear political.”
That contradicted comments Esper made to NBC News just the night before, where he said “I didn’t know where I was going,” be he “wanted to see how much damage actually happened” to Lafayette Park.
Former NSA and CIA director Mike Hayden said on CNN this afternoon that Esper should resign. He also criticized Milley with Trump wearing his combat uniform.
For the moment, Esper appears to have the reigns at the Pentagon, even as word started to spread Wednesday afternoon that the White House was unhappy with his performance in the NBC interview and at the podium. White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany offered tepid support for the SecDef when asked at a mid-afternoon press briefing, confirming “as of right now Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper.” (D.N.).

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