(CN) — An ex-Marine turned U.S. congressman, Representative Ruben Gallego has been having numerous conversations with his fellow veteran-lawmakers about President Trump’s use of the military last week on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Each of them had the same reaction.
“They’re all appalled by it,” Gallego said in an interview Monday. “They know that there is a thin line that connects our democracy to an apolitical military and these types of actions really blur that line. We want to make sure that we want to push back hard on it.”
After announcing the troops’ deployment at a carefully stage-managed briefing, Trump followed up on the Washington mayor’s request to withdraw them on Sunday in his traditional manner: with a tweet.
Now sitting on two House Armed Services subcommittees, Gallego, of Arizona’s 7th Congressional District, is well-placed to investigate what happened during those intense days. The congressman joined a group of 30 House Democrats last week calling for answers from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy on why 4,000 troops deployed to the U.S. Capitol during peacetime.
“There has been some pushback by the Pentagon to come in and testify,” Gallego said of those requests, adding that he believes the committee ultimately will be successful.
If brought before Congress, General Milley would certainly face questions about his decision to stroll down the streets of Washington last week in battle fatigues, and Secretary Esper would be asked to clarify what he meant in describing civilian streets as a “battlespace” to “dominate” — a militarization of U.S. cities that inspired widespread outrage.
“If you’re bringing military professionals into the streets, during a political fight essentially and being used as props, you’re gonna diminish the standing of the military and in the long term diminish their ability to operate a democracy,” Gallego said.
Drawing international scrutiny from human rights observers was the appearance of Lakota and Blackhawk helicopters flying low above protesters’ heads, a technique known as a show of force during the Iraq War.
“When you use helicopter-created downdraft to disperse peaceful protesters, or to intimidate protesters, that is just wrong,” Gallego said. “Those types of actions are the actions that we used to use in Iraq against insurgents. You don’t do that to U.S. citizens, as much as you may not like their politics.”
On Friday, Human Rights Watch went further, calling the maneuver a dangerous and excessive use of force prohibited by international human rights law. The wind shooting from the copters snapped tree branches and sent debris flying.
“To see that type of force being used on Americans, peaceful Americans, it scares me, because it tells you that we’re sliding down a path we don’t want to go to,” Gallego recalled reacting. “And the fact that those officers and those pilots, even though they probably were ordered to do it didn’t stop and say: ‘No I won’t do that. This is the United States of America.’”
For Gallego, the image symbolized a descent into autocracy.
“That’s where we have to be very, very afraid because if we slide ourselves away from a democracy closer to some type of authoritarian regime, it’s not going to happen automatically,” he said. “It’s gonna happen with these little things, such as the pilots doing the downdraft or those federal police in front of the White House shooting at innocent protesters with tear gas.”
The congressman also revealed that the Armed Services Committee is eyeing language on the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual military appropriations bill, to restrict its use of force on civilians.
Another visual warning for the congressman has been the appearance of federal officers on the streets without visual badges, avoiding questions from reporters about what agency’s they serve.
In a June 4th letter to Attorney General Bill Barr, four Democrats — Congressmen Raja Krishnamoorthi and Hakeem Jeffries along with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker — showed the photographs and demanded answers. The letter asked whether any of the law enforcement officials sent by the Bureau of Prisons included private contractors.
“That type of action, where you have nameless police officers being flown in with zero accountability is a slow slide, I think, to a possible police state, which I don’t think any of us wants,” Gallego commented.
The congressman hopes that veteran-lawmakers can serve as an example for armed service members.
“We know what it is to be a soldier, sailor, Marine, airman,” Gallego said. “And we’re going to defend that honor that we’ve established over the last 200 some years that the military is here to be apolitical and to protect citizens — and certainly not to be ordered in the streets to shoot them.”
Reminding members of the military that history is watching, Gallego noted that Trump will not always remain president.
“Hopefully it’s within the next, with this election cycle, but we will find out who acted dishonorably,” he said. “We will find out who did illegal orders. Paperwork is very easy to track down, and if you violated Americans’ civil liberties in the process of giving out or following illegal orders, you will be held accountable.”
While largely approving the behavior of National Guard troops on the ground, Gallego worried about the message sent in deploying an “occupying force in D.C.” in such massive numbers.
“They had one or two nights of some looting happening, but to occupy the city with 4,000 troops during peacetime, you’re trying to send a message,” Gallego said. “You’re not actually trying to quell any type of looting, and the message has nothing to do with trying to keep looters away. I think it’s more the message that this president is trying to say is that he can do this.”
On the night Milley walked on the streets of Washington in military attire, Gallego fired off a letter to the general consisting of a single question: “Do you intended to obey illegal orders from the President?”
Asked whether Milley responded, Gallego answered that the general’s staff passed on the message that the chairman fully intends to stay within the law.