WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper broke with the White House Wednesday and said the circumstances in the streets of U.S. cities do not merit sending in active-duty troops to assist law enforcement.
“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 … dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper told Pentagon reporters at a hastily arranged news conference.
“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he said near the start of his 26-minute briefing.
Esper made the comments even as active forces from Task Force 504, an infantry battalion assigned to the Army’s Immediate Response Force based at Fort Bragg, the 16th Military Police Brigade from Fort Bragg, and the 91st Military Police Battalion from Fort Drum, took up positions outside the District of Columbia border.
It is the first time Esper has publicly taken a position counter to the White House since becoming defense secretary on July 23, 2019.
“He knew exactly what he was doing when he decided to support Donald Trump in this instead of standing up and saying, Sir, no, you’re politicizing the military. This is not the appropriate use of our military. Instead he went right along with it,’ Sen. Tammie Duckworth, D-Wis., and a veteran, said in a Tweet about Esper.
Esper also said he ordered an investigation into why a National Guard medical evacuation helicopter was used to disperse and intimidate a crowd on a downtown DC street. He said he disagreed with the characterization and suggested it was used to inspect a National Guard checkpoint but conceded “it did look unsafe to me.”
On Wednesday, he also acknowledged he knew he was going to the church with President Trump that resulted in the photo op, after telling NBC News Tuesday night he did not know.
However, he continued to stick to the line that tear gas and rubber bullets were not used to clear the peaceful demonstrators out of Lafayette Square — despite physical and visual proof of their use.
Esper’s characterization of U.S. cities as “battlespace” and the fact that he and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were props in Trump’s photo-op in front a church Monday night drew outrage and scorn from a slew of retired brass from all the services.
Milley did not join Esper at the briefing.
Esper said that battlespace is a “bounded area of operation” and that he in “retrospect would use different words “ so people “would not have the wrong ideas.”
How Esper’s comments resound at the White House was not immediately clear. According to news reports, the remarks were not provided in advance to the White House. The Pentagon also reportedly said no to Trump’s request to bring tanks into the city.
Esper was to head to the White House after the briefing.
In the afternoon, White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany said Trump could use the Insurrection Act if needed. “The Insurrection Act is a tool available. The President has the sole authority. And if needed, he will use it,” she told reporters.
Not putting U.S. active-duty troops on DC street may be a moot point as security units from federal penal institutions with no indeifying markings, controlled by the Justice Department, have been taking positions around the city.