WASHINGTON (CN) — Appearing to break ranks with his dismissal-prone commander as American cities enter a second week of incendiary protests, Defense Secretary Mark Esper called it overkill Wednesday to wield military force.
“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,” Esper said this morning in a news conference from the Pentagon. “We are not in one of those situations now.”
The press conference came a day after Esper took care to disclaim responsibility for a Monday photo shoot outside St. John’s Church in Washington featuring himself, President Trump and other officials.
At the time, a group of protesters had stood in the way of the president’s path from the White House to the landmark church across the street. The administration has been roundly criticized for clearing the demonstration out of Lafayette Square by spraying tear gas.
Esper, who has held the defense secretary office for nearly a year, claimed Tuesday in an interview with NBC that he was unaware of his destination when he joined the president on the short walk across Lafayette Square. On Wednesday, the defense secretary said he thought the point of the walk was to visit troops near the park.
As in cities across the country, protesters have gathered for days in Washington to decry the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, on Memorial Day.
Amid critical reports that he had retreated to a bunker in the White House over the weekend as demonstrations raged outside, Trump emerged Monday carrying a Bible to for the photo op at St. John’s.
While the photo op predictably drew objections from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who said the president’s “message and actions fan the flames of discord, bigotry and violence,” — Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska spoke out as well.
Sasse said the move treated the “Word of God as a political prop.”
Esper on Wednesday expressed his sympathies to Floyd’s family.
“The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder,” he said. “It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times.”
Meanwhile the Associated Press has reported that there are 715 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division who are armed with riot gear, awaiting deployment from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
The Department of Defense’s drafted contingency plans for deploying active-duty military say that, if the National Guard is unable to keep Washington, D.C., secure, soldiers from an Army division would protect the White House.
Taking into account the 82nd Airborne battalion at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, there are a total of 1,300 soldiers on standby.
Two soldiers from the 82nd were quoted in the AP report as saying that the soldiers on standby had been issued bayonets — a knife-like weapon that can be affixed to rifles.
The soldiers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they would be punished for commenting publicly. The idea that bayonets could be used in confronting civilians provoked an outcry on social media and among some members of Congress.
Used sparingly in America’s history, the Insurrection Act came into play in 1989 after lootings broke out in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo and in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which erupted in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King.
Trump has deployed National Guard troops and federal law enforcement officers around the White House and has pushed governors to utilize the National Guard as well, calling those who don’t take advantage “weak.”
“NYC, CALL UP THE NATIONAL GUARD,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “The lowlifes and losers are ripping you apart. Act fast! Don’t make the same horrible and deadly mistake you made with the Nursing Homes!!!”