WASHINGTON — The smoke is gone from the park for the moment, the park where tourists would pose and lovers would sneak, where graffiti and trash have pushed out historic brochures and fast-food vendors. Troops remain with a war-zone look in a battle terrain that is carving new roles in U.S. military history.
All with plenty of bluster, lack of situational awareness, feints, retreats, unleashed charges, finger-pointing and denial, and a fuse that is not cold.
No one is admitting to firing the tear gas at the peaceful demonstrators to clear the path for President Trump to walk across Lafayette Sqaure for a photo op in front of a church. Or the pepper spray. Or the flash grenades.
Some Pentagon officials said it was not tear gas but smoke grenades.
Neither Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who served 20 years in the military, nor Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, realized that Trump was going to walk across the park when they left the White House after a meeting to inspect the troops at the White House fence, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
“At that point, they were part of the group with the president and they continued through Lafayette Park,” one Pentagon official said. He said they were unaware the park had been forcibly cleared.
And neither man saw or can recall if Trump was carrying a bible or when he acquired it, they said. So much for military situational awareness.
There were no answers as to why or who authorized medical helicopters to buzz demonstrators in Washington, DC. They snapped tree limbs, kicked up dirt, and used a tactic refined in war zones to harass and intimate those on the ground.
No one had an answer as to why Milley, who always seems to appear in photos taken at the White House in a formal service uniform, as is the protocol, chose to wear battle fatigues this time. Pentagon officials said Milley and Esper were called to the White House en route to a meeting at the FBI.
Other Pentagon officials told some reporters that is was Attorney General William Barr who gave the order to use force to remove demonstrators.
Pentagon officials did not hint of any concern with Trump’s orders or maneuver, although they did deny it was a bait-and-switch by the president. Others were more vocal.
“I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act,” Gen. Mike Mullen, the 17th chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in The Atlantic.
Trump’s day Monday consisted of a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, then a call with the governors telling them they were not tough enough, then the update briefing from Milley and Esper, then the walk for the photo-op.
It disgusted neighboring Arlington County officials to the degree that they ordered their police out of participation in assisting park police. The Arlington County Board issued a statement Monday night saying its officers were used “for a purpose not worthy of our mutual aid obligations.”
Today, Australian officials ordered its embassy in DC to conduct an investigation as to why an Australian TV crew was beaten by police, even though they were clearly visible as the media and standing to the side.
“We have asked the Australian embassy in Washington, DC to investigate this incident,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said after the journalists were slammed with a riot shield, punched and hit with a baton while broadcasting from the protest.
Another ally, Canadian Prime Minister Justine Trudeau, today was asked to respond to Trump’s threatened use of military force against protesters. He paused for 21 seconds before answering. “We all watch in horror and consternation, what’s going on in the United States,” he said.
Pentagon officials, speaking only on background and refusing to go on the record, said today the only active-duty troops are garrisoned around the perimeter of Washington, D.C. They said none are in or near any other cities, for the time being.
They dismissed Esper’s use of the word “battlespace” — which he used Monday to describe American cities during Trump’s call with the governors — as parlance.” I think all of you are very well aware that the DoD often communicates in a parlance unique to the profession of arms. You have a SecDef in uniform for more than 20 years,” the official said. “He was using the terms that we have.”
He said it was not “a pejorative word” much like “terrain” would be used in place of street, words “not tethered in the reality of how it was used.”
Another former chair of the joint chiefs dismissed such spin. “America’s military, our sons and daughters, will place themselves at risk to protect their fellow citizens. Their job is unimaginably hard overseas; harder at home. Respect them, for they respect you. America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the 18th chair of the Joint Chiefs, said Tuesday.
Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Joe Lengyel told reporters that 1,300 D.C National Guardsmen were on the streets in Washington last night, augmented by Guardsmen from Utah and New Jersey. Indiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee Guards will join tonight. Governors in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, and New York declined requests.
There was also on the record comments by Air Force Chief of Staff Dave Goldfein, regarding the incident that has triggered the demonstrations — the death of George Floyd.
In a message sent to wing commanders Monday night, Goldfein wrote “we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias. We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice. We will not shy away from this.”
Goldfein, who has a reputation of being independent, was in line to be chair of the Joint Chiefs but Trump instead chose Milley.