The Pentagon Distances Itself From Trump

Facing fierce criticism from Mattis and other former senior military officials, Esper insists the Pentagon is not playing politics.

U.S. President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and others
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd in Washington on June 1. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Confronted with fierce criticism from retired senior military officials, Defense Secretary Mark Esper insisted on Wednesday that the U.S. Defense Department was not playing politics and distanced himself from suggestions by President Donald Trump that the military might be used to quell domestic unrest under the two-century-old Insurrection Act. 

“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 now,” Esper said at a news conference. Esper also said, “I do everything I can to stay apolitical.”

The comments came after Esper’s much-criticized statement to NBC News that he was not aware of Trump’s intentions when the Pentagon chief joined the president for a photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday after the forcible clearing of peaceful protesters near the White House. The latest remarks suggested that Esper was consciously distancing himself from Trump, even though the New York Times reported on Tuesday that the defense secretary had himself advocated for the invocation of the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty forces. Esper also prompted criticism by calling on governors to “mass and dominate the battlespace” in reference to containing rioters. 

The defense secretary’s remarks to the governors, along with his appearance at Trump’s photo-op together with Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, provoked a spate of fierce criticism from former senior military officials, including Trump’s own previous defense secretary, James Mattis, who issued a scathing statement Wednesday.

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside, Mattis, a former Marine general, said in the statement to reporters. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society.

In a stunning rebuke to the president he once served, Mattis added: Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. 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.

Mattis’s criticism was preceded by that of former Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, who wrote on Twitter on Monday that “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.” Another former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, wrote in the Atlantic  on Tuesday that he was “sickened” by the spectacle at the church.

Esper, looking somber behind the podium at the Pentagon, was giving his first public response Wednesday to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, a full nine days after the killing sparked nationwide protests. Appearing to finesse the narrative around the heavily criticized photo-op outside of St. John’s, the Pentagon chief said he knew that Trump had planned the walk from the White House to the church but was unaware of any clearing of demonstrators from the park in-between. 

“I did know that following the president’s remarks on Monday evening that many of us were going to join President Trump and review damage at Lafayette Park and at St. John’s Episcopal Church,” Esper told reporters. “What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when we arrived at the church, and what the plans were once we got there.”

“There’s a political tone to this,” Esper acknowledged. “This is a challenge for every Department of Defense during an election year.” In a memo sent to Pentagon civilians and military members on Tuesday night, he called on the agency “to stay apolitical in these turbulent days,” amid concerns that Trump is leveraging a possible military deployment to quell protests and appeal to his voter base ahead of the November election.

Esper’s turn at the podium prompted reports, first broken by Bloomberg, that the defense secretary was on thin ice with Trump for pushing back on the use of the Insurrection Act. But administration officials indicated that Esper’s job would be safe for now, while stopping far short of a full-throated endorsement of the Pentagon chief’s job performance. “As of right now Secretary Esper is Secretary Esper,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Wednesday, adding that Trump has “the sole authority” to invoke the Insurrection Act.

But after the Defense Department spent much of the week separating itself from Trump’s response to the protests, Esper was forced to pivot abruptly on another issue Wednesday, reversing an earlier decision to redeploy active-duty soldiers out of the D.C. area, a defense official told Foreign Policy. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the Associated Press that the move to leave 200 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division in the greater Washington area came after Esper had meetings in the White House and with other Pentagon officials.

The head-spinning turn of events on Wednesday came after a second defense official appeared to walk back the Pentagon’s involvement in Monday’s scene, telling reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that Esper and Milley were unaware that they would join Trump for the walk and that the visit was a surprise.

Esper insisted that Milley, who was criticized for joining the walk in his battle dress, was wearing the “appropriate uniform” for reviewing troops, which is what the defense secretary thought would occur on the walk through Lafayette Square, and he said that Park Police had not used rubber bullets or tear gas to clear the area, contradicting several eyewitness reports. 

But the scenes of the past week have raised concerns that the Trump administration is using the Defense Department in an increasingly political light. 

“I think in the aftermath of this presidency, the Pentagon will need to rebuild trust between civilian and military institutions and leaders,” said Alice Hunt Friend, a former Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “The military must be able to trust that civilian leaders will not put them in compromising political positions for those civilians’ own political benefit.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who was seen at a protest gathering near the White House on Tuesday night, called on the Pentagon’s inspector general to investigate the Defense Department’s role in the dispersal of demonstrations. The District of Columbia National Guard is also investigating a “low-flying maneuver” by a medical evacuation helicopter against protesters that went viral on social media, and House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, said he plans to call Esper and Milley over to Capitol Hill for a hearing explaining Monday’s tumult. 

While Esper on Wednesday said he used the term “battlespace” to commend Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, himself a retired member of the National Guard, on his response to the demonstrations, other former officials told Foreign Policy that the phrase isn’t used when referring to U.S. cities. 

“It was a foul up,” a former military official told Foreign Policy. “And then to follow that with the photo op in Lafayette park—he and Milley both would pay a lot for a ‘do over.’”

Esper, the source said, relies on jargon “because it always seems more mission oriented,” dating back to his time as Trump’s secretary of the army.  

But the images of members of the National Guard driving convoys through Washington, D.C., and the surge of 1,600 active-duty U.S. troops into the surrounding area on Tuesday night to deploy onto the streets of the capital continued to raise eyebrows about the potential use of the military in responding to demonstrations. 

“The decision to use active military forces in crowd control in the United States should only be made as a last resort,” said Mick Mulroy, a retired U.S. Marine, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration, and an ABC News analyst. “Active Army and Marine Corps units are trained to fight our nation’s enemies, not their fellow Americans. American cities are not battlefields.”

Update, June 3, 2020: This article was updated to include the White House’s response to Esper’s remarks. It has been further updated to provide details about the U.S. troop deployment to the Washington D.C. area. It was subsequently updated to include details of former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s statement to the press.

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

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