Trump Pledges Military Response to Protests, Provoking Outrage

Congress pushes back after images of police violence spread over the weekend with a move to limit Pentagon weapons transfers to local authorities.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Donald Trump walks back to the White House after spending time in front of St. John's Episcopal church in Washington, DC on June 1.
U.S. President Donald Trump walks back to the White House after spending time in front of St. John's Episcopal church in Washington, DC on June 1. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

In a speech from the Rose Garden on Monday night as the sound of police firing tear gas on protesters outside the White House gates boomed in the background, U.S. President Donald Trump said he would deploy the military to quell anti-police protests if state governors are unable to do so, repeating warnings made to state officials earlier in the day.

“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property,” Trump said in the short speech. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Trump followed the speech by walking to St. John’s Episcopal Church, a block away from the White House, for a photo-op in which he held up a bible for the cameras, after crossing a barren Lafayette Park that had been forcibly cleared of peaceful demonstrators with tear gas. Standing with him were Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and Attorney General Bill Barr. The basement of St. John’s, a historic church attended by previous presidents, was set on fire during protests on Sunday night before firefighters put out the blaze. 

Trump’s remarks, coming just after additional National Guard troops drove through the streets of Washington, D.C., in clips that went viral on social media, hinted at the use of the Insurrection Act, last invoked by California authorities during the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the police beating of Rodney King. The 1807 U.S. law allows active-duty units to be sent in to relieve the National Guard or local police to stop riots. But such a move could aggravate an already raging national debate over the role of U.S. troops in the response to protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. A white police officer has been charged with murder in the death of the African-American victim. 

The president’s Monday night’s address will likely exacerbate an already intense dispute between Trump, who is pushing for a wider U.S. military response to anti-police disturbances across the country, and Democrats and libertarians in Congress who worry that U.S. police departments have already become too militarized and are only aggravating the protesters, making the demonstrations more violent.

After images of New York City police ramming vehicles into barricades and Minneapolis officers firing rubber bullets and tear gas on bystanders went viral on Twitter last weekend, progressive Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans in the Senate pounced on the Trump administration, urging it to curtail a program that gives the Department of Defense leeway to send military weapons and equipment to local authorities.

But Trump, speaking to U.S. state governors amid rioting that has swept the nation in the wake of the videotaped death of an African American man in Minneapolis police custody, made the case for the White House and the Pentagon to play a much stronger hand in the response. The president’s push came even after the National Guard announced it had activated 66,700 troops to respond to both the protests and the coronavirus pandemic, a larger number of reservists than responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years, and you’ll never see this stuff again,” Trump told the governors, whom he also described as “weak” in the leaked audio conference. 

Trump also said that he was putting the U.S. military’s top officer, Milley, in charge of the response to the protests, though it wasn’t immediately clear what role the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would have, since he is not in the operational chain of chain under law. A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that the Justice Department would be leading the effort, and that Milley’s role as a military advisor to President Trump had not changed.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany later said that Milley, Esper, and Barr would be part of a command center alongside state and local governments to put a stop to looting and vandalism that accompanied peaceful protests since Floyd was asphyxiated after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck last week. A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that the Justice Department would be leading the effort—not Milley—and that Joint Chiefs chairman’s role as a military advisor to Trump had not changed.

Trump also said “federal assets” would help respond, but he did not clarify what units or assets would deploy. Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement on Saturday that U.S. Northern Command had been directed to increase the alert status for several units, but that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz had not asked for the military to respond. The senior defense official told Foreign Policy that 500 National Guard troops from five states are in Washington or on their way, supplementing 1,200 members of the D.C. National Guard. The official added that a mix of active-duty U.S. military police and engineers are already in the greater Washington area on a “shortened alert status” and can be activated by Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy.

Beyond that, Trump would have to jump through a number of legal hoops to deploy active-duty U.S. troops, as the White House is limited from using the military to conduct most law enforcement operations under the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. The Insurrection Act would potentially provide the White House with legal wiggle room. 

Such a move could prove controversial, even as states have struggled to quell the destruction in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. While the National Guard’s efforts to protect infrastructure and emergency workers during the protests have been applauded by law enforcement officials, some are urging a local response to the demonstrations.

Ronal Serpas, the former police superintendent in New Orleans, suggested the massing of law enforcement personnel may be aimed at keeping the protests from escalating, experts told Foreign Policy. 

“The bigger the other side is the quicker you’re going to run out of your energy,” he said. “If the Minneapolis Police Department has 400 people and they’ve exhausted themselves, and then you bring in 1,000 state troopers and that’s been exhausted, and now you bring in 5,000 National Guardspeople, eventually the other side is going to run out of energy.”

Trump’s allies in Congress appeared to back his call to send the U.S. military to major cities overrun by protests and looting in the wake of Floyd’s killing last week, including Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who called for the Pentagon to send the elite 82nd Airborne Division to control demonstrators.

“I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper said on the leaked call on Monday.

But Esper’s comments were criticized on Twitter by the U.S. military’s former top officer, retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the former chief of U.S. Special Operations Command. And there is concern that a large U.S troop deployment that may not be trained in peacekeeping or maintaining order among large crowds could be disruptive and help escalate peaceful protests into violent clashes.

“Deploying them in more of an active or operational role is something that gives us concern,” said Jim Burch, the president of the National Police Foundation and a former acting assistant director at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. “The concern that most of us have from the law enforcement community is what training does the military have.” 

Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted on Sunday night that he would introduce a provision in the Pentagon’s annual authorizing bill that would discontinue the 1033 program, which the Defense Department uses to transfer everything from filing cabinets and night-vision goggles to rifles and armored personnel carriers to state and local authorities.

An aide to Schatz clarified that the provision is likely to be similar to a stalled 2015 bill he sponsored with Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, that limits the Pentagon from sending armored vehicles and drones to police, but it would not limit the provision of defense equipment, such as body armor.

Since the first time that bill was introduced, police accountability advocates have expressed concern that oversight of Pentagon assistance to local law enforcement has fallen by the wayside.

At the beginning of his administration, Trump stripped away an Obama-era executive order signed after the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, protests that increased training standards for equipment passed from the Pentagon to local authorities and stopped transfers of riot gear, battering rams, explosives, and armored vehicles.

“The tendency is to continually expand, especially in terms of the amount and type of gear it sends to law enforcement agencies,” said Casey Delehanty, an assistant professor of global studies at Gardner-Webb University. “If we want to put a dent in police militarization, 1033 should go.”

The Government Accountability Office launched an investigation of the program in 2017, determining that the Pentagon’s in-house logistics agency had done little to prevent fraudulent transfers after the watchdog acquired $1.2 million in potentially lethal items under a phony name. Burch, the former Justice Department official, said that many local law enforcement agencies are being equipped by other programs and agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

Police departments have begun to buy greater quantities of high-powered military equipment and armor in recent years as they’ve been outgunned in certain criminal cases, dating back to a 1997 Los Angeles bank shootout that wounded 12 officers as the assailants were protected by heavily plated homemade body armor. In 2016, Dallas Police deployed a so-called bomb robot to kill a suspect accused of killing five police officers, raising eyebrows about a trend toward military action in the law enforcement community. 

“It is really hard for anyone to say there hasn’t been a trend toward militarization,” Burch said. “All you have to do is turn on the news right now and you see it, militarization, it’s out there.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch