Report

Esper Orders Some U.S. Troops Deployed for Protests to Leave Washington

Elements of an elite paratrooper unit will leave Washington in a move that could spark tensions between the White House and the Pentagon.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper attends the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on March 18. Brendan Smialowsk/AFP/Getty Images

Several hundred active-duty U.S. troops on standby to deal with protests in the Washington, D.C., area will redeploy back home on Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s orders, two defense officials told Foreign Policy, coming just one day after the Pentagon chief reversed a decision to send the unit home.

The Pentagon made the decision to send elements of the 82nd Airborne Division home to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, about a week after they were deployed to Washington, and the units had never been called into the city itself. While between 500 to 700 troops leave, some elements of the unit will remain in the greater Washington area on the Virginia side of the river, one of the officials told Foreign Policy.

But today’s move comes as Esper, who told reporters on Wednesday that he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act to quell protests, finds himself increasingly at odds with the president and other administration officials over the military response to demonstrations sweeping the United States in the week since an African American man was asphyxiated in police custody. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointedly did not endorse the Pentagon chief’s job performance at a briefing on Wednesday, and she said it was President Donald Trump’s “decision alone” to invoke the Insurrection Act.

Meanwhile, there are now 4,500 National Guard troops deployed in the nation’s capital as the presence of U.S. reservists in there surged in recent days, with more than 3,000 troops coming from other states. Yet Thursday’s decision could still stoke tensions between Trump and Esper, as the White House has warned of looting in the D.C. area and erected fences around Lafayette Square after both men earned public derision for walking through the area for a photo-op after U.S. Park Police forcibly cleared nearby protesters.

Trump hinted at using the centuries-old Insurrection Act in a Rose Garden speech on Monday. The 1807 U.S. law allows active-duty American troops to be sent in to help local police or the National Guard stop riots, though demonstrations in Washington have been mostly peaceful since the weekend, allowing Mayor Muriel Bowser to relax a weeklong practice of nightly curfews on Thursday.

The commander in chief appeared to soften his rhetoric in an interview with his former press secretary Sean Spicer last night. “I don’t think we’ll have to,” Trump said of using active-duty forces on Newsmax TV. “We have very strong powers to do it. The National Guard is customary and we have a very powerful National Guard.”  

Today’s move cuts a large portion of the 1,600 U.S. troops deployed to the Washington area. Earlier in the week, Esper had ordered the movement of an infantry battalion and a military police unit based at Fort Bragg. Another military police unit from Fort Drum, New York, has also been sent to the nation’s capital.

But the dramatic clearing of Lafayette Park has nonetheless prompted a stunning procession of high-ranking former Defense Department and military officials to rebuke Trump over Monday’s spectacle, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who also took a shot at Esper, his immediate non-acting successor, in a strongly worded statement shared with Foreign Policy and other outlets. Mattis had previously declined to comment on Esper during a recent book tour.

“It’s extraordinary that he’s condemning Esper’s use of the military for protests,” said Guy Snodgrass, a retired U.S. Navy aviator and a onetime speechwriter for Mattis during his tenure as defense secretary. “With Mattis chopping out Esper’s legs like this he’s gone against his own principles.”

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

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