Hundreds of Former National Security Officials Condemn Trump’s Response to Protests

In a letter, more than 200 former senior diplomats and military leaders say there is “no role” for the U.S. military to deal with protesters exercising free speech rights.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump shushes journalists before signing the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act in the Rose Garden at the White House June 05, 2020 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump shushes journalists before signing the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act at the White House in Washington on June 5. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More than 280 former senior U.S. diplomats and military leaders rebuked President Donald Trump over his plans to use U.S. military units to control protests across the country in a letter shared with Foreign Policy on Friday. 

The participants joined a chorus of high-ranking current and former officials who already have condemned the commander in chief after police forcibly cleared protesters near the White House this week for a photo opportunity.

The letter was drafted by Douglas Silliman, the president’s former ambassador to Iraq; Deborah McCarthy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Lithuania during the Obama administration; and Thomas Countryman, a veteran diplomat who served as the State Department’s top arms control official. 

“Many of us served across the globe, including in war zones, diplomats and military officers working side by side to advance American interests and values. We called out violations of human rights and the authoritarian regimes that deployed their military against their own citizens,” the former high-ranking officials wrote. “We condemn all criminal acts against persons and property, but cannot agree that responding to these acts is beyond the capabilities of local and state authorities.” 

“There is no role for the U.S. military in dealing with American citizens exercising their constitutional right to free speech, however uncomfortable that speech may be for some,” the signatories added, condemning the use of National Guard helicopters in a so-called “rotor wash” low-flying action against protesters near the White House on Monday night. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered as many as 700 soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division that were on high alert to respond to protests back home, leaving under 1,000 active-duty U.S. troops nearby, mostly from military police units. 

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy confirmed that Esper had given the 91st Military Police Battalion “vocal instructions” to depart the Washington, D.C., area immediately and that it was the Pentagon’s intention to send home any other remaining troops “as soon as possible.”

“The decision to bring the active forces in on Monday was largely due to the fact that we did not have enough people here,” McCarthy said at a Pentagon gaggle today. “Sunday was an incredibly challenging night for us: The Lincoln Monument was defaced, we had five soldiers hit in the head with a brick, obviously St. John’s was burned. Inside of Lafayette Square, [we] definitely lost control, to the point they were on the north fence.”

Lawmakers and former members of Trump’s own administration, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, have criticized the White House’s decision to flood the nation’s capital with more than 4,500 National Guard troops—mostly from other U.S. states. Trump has yet to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act that allows the U.S. military to respond to riots, and active-duty units ordered on standby did not enter Washington, D.C., city limits. 

But even the deployments of reservists and Justice Department personnel, who have been seen concealing their badge numbers and other identifying information, have stoked ire from local officials, after protests proceeded peacefully throughout much of the week. In a letter sent to Trump on Thursday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told the president that she had ended the city’s state of emergency for demonstrations and asked for National Guard troops to demobilize. 

“The protestors have been peaceful, and last night, the Metropolitan Police Department did not make a single arrest,” Bowser wrote. “Therefore, I am requesting that you withdraw all extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence from Washington, DC.” Bowser accelerated her protests of Trump’s response on Friday, unveiling a street sign for “Black Lives Matter Plaza” next to the White House after the city hired a crew to paint the adjoining intersection with a stenciled tribute to the movement. 

The walling off of the White House and use of unidentified Justice Department personnel to patrol Washington’s streets has prompted outcry from Capitol Hill, including from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has demanded that those units make their badge numbers visible.

“It’s the concept that you don’t know who these people are,” said Bonnie Jenkins, a former State Department official during the Obama administration and now a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “You don’t want the military to be going against the American people.” 

But the stern pushback has done little to curb nationwide deployments of National Guard troops in response to the protests, according to figures released by the Defense Department on Friday. As of Friday morning, governors in 33 states and Washington, D.C., had activated 41,500 National Guardsmen to respond to reports of civil unrest surrounding the demonstrations, an increase of more than 9,000 troops from Thursday. 

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer