Pentagon Won’t Disclose Cost of D.C. Troops

The Defense Department falls short of a deadline set by seven Senate Democrats but says it is working on a response detailing the expense of sending U.S. troops to Washington.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, testify about the Defense department budget during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 4, 2020.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper (left) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley testify about the Defense Department budget during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 4. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Defense Department has failed to meet a deadline to detail to Congress the cost of deploying some 1,600 active-duty troops to the Washington, D.C., area amid protests last week, Foreign Policy has learned, another potential blow to congressional oversight of the Pentagon. 

The office of Sen. Chris Van Hollen, which also asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper to explain why he reversed a decision to redeploy several hundred U.S. troops out of Washington after a reportedly fiery exchange with President Donald Trump last week, told Foreign Policy that the Pentagon had not provided a response, which was due Monday evening.

“The President’s use of military force against American citizens peacefully protesting is plainly unconstitutional,” Van Hollen and six other Democratic senators wrote to Esper last week. “To add insult to injury, the American people will have to foot the bill for these violations of their First Amendment rights.” 

The Defense Department acknowledged the request last week, Van Hollen’s office told Foreign Policy, but has not followed up with the Maryland Democrat and his colleagues, including Ben Cardin, the state’s senior senator.

“We are working [on] the response to the senators and will respond directly to them,” said Jessica Maxwell, a Defense Department spokesperson.

Over the weekend, chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman contradicted reports that Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had refused a request from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith to testify in open session about the Pentagon’s response. 

The Trump administration ultimately decided not to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to quash the demonstrations, which have proceeded peacefully for the past week since looting erupted on Washington’s streets during the last weekend of May following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters on Sunday that the Trump administration came “right up to the edge” of deploying U.S. troops amid the protests, though Esper ultimately came out publicly against using the 1807 Insurrection Act on Tuesday that would have allowed active-duty units to cross the bridge from Virginia and Maryland into the District of Columbia.

“We postured them outside [of Washington] on the other side of the river,” McCarthy said on Sunday. “They did not cross the river into the capital. They were on the outskirts.” Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division had been waiting at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Joint Base Andrews in Maryland but were never called up, along with active-duty rapid response and military police units from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Drum, New York. 

Esper ordered the last of the units to depart the Washington area on Friday, and McCarthy said out-of-state National Guardsmen who remained in D.C. to potentially respond to Saturday’s protests were set to leave by the middle of this week.

But even with the deployments scrapped, lawmakers insist that the fight to drag Defense Department leaders to Capitol Hill for testimony will continue, though McCarthy participated in a telephone call with the House Armed Services Committee this week alongside uniformed Army and D.C. National Guard leaders.

“The Chairman [Adam Smith] remains adamant that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley testify before the committee to give an on-the-record account leading up to the events in the military’s response in the District, including the clearing of demonstrators in Lafayette Square and the helicopter response in the area, as well as engage in a more broad policy discussion about the use of military service members during civil unrest,” Monica Matoush, a Democratic spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, told Foreign Policy.

Yet news this week that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, a Trump ally, will not press for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to publicly defend his agency’s budget has watchdog groups worried that the Trump administration is having success in stonewalling oversight requests.

“I think systemically with the White House we’re seeing a low point with the administration failing to provide [witnesses],” said Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight.

There is a track record for the Pentagon sidestepping Congress on specific oversight requests dating back to the Obama administration, to which lawmakers have responded with stern condemnation and threats to withhold money.

In 2015, the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee accused the White House of breaking federal law by failing to notify Congress in advance of the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, a finding supported by the Government Accountability Office.

But amid threats from House progressives to slash the Pentagon’s budget as the coronavirus pandemic forced the U.S. economy into a recession—ending more than 10 straight years of economic growth—experts say that Democrats could go too far, by threatening to vote “no” on the Defense Department’s authorization bill. The annual bill gives lawmakers the ability to force the agency to respond to oversight requests through reporting requirements and the power of the purse.

“That would be weakening Congress’s own power,” Smithberger said. “It would be like setting off a bomb in your own house.” 

Update, June 9, 2020: This article previously stated that Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy visited Capitol Hill for a briefing with the House Armed Services Committee this week. The engagement was an informal telephone call. 

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

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