Pentagon Chiefs Face Grilling on Use of Military Against Civilians

Top officials at the Pentagon have distanced themselves from President Trump since his staged photo op at Lafayette Square on June 1.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speak to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 4. (AP file photo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon’s top leaders are going before Congress for the first time in months to face a long list of controversies, including their differences with President Donald Trump over the handling of protests near the White House in June during unrest triggered by the police killing of George Floyd.

The House hearing Thursday will provide the first congressional testimony by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, since March 4, when they appeared to discuss the administration’s defense budget proposal. That was before the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent and before nationwide civil unrest threw the Pentagon’s relations with Trump into crisis.

Trump’s push for an aggressive response to the civil unrest led to an extraordinary clash with Esper and Milley, who on June 1 accompanied the president when he walked from the White House to St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square, where he held up a Bible for photographers. That day, a National Guard helicopter was flown at extremely low altitude to disperse protesters from the capital’s streets, prompting a Pentagon investigation into whether that was a proper use of military resources.

Esper drew Trump’s ire for telling a Pentagon news conference that he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act to permit the president to use the armed forces to put down domestic civil unrest. Esper said he saw no need for such an extreme measure, a clear counterpoint to Trump’s threat to use force.

Esper also made known his regret at having accompanied Trump to the presidential photo op in front of St. John’s on the day of the Lafayette Square confrontations.

Milley also expressed regret that he had been part of the scene with Trump. He said he had been wrong to stride in uniform with Trump past protesters who had been cleared from Lafayette Square by tear gas and batons. Milley said his presence “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

“I should not have been there,” he told a National Defense University commencement ceremony.

Esper and Milley also are likely to be grilled by members of the House Armed Services Committee on a simmering debate over removing the names of Confederate Army officers from Army bases and banning other Confederate symbols. That also puts them potentially at odds with Trump, who has said he opposes removing the Confederate names from bases such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The House and Senate versions of the 2021 defense budget legislation require name changes at 10 Army bases. Trump has said he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk with that provision.

Neither Esper nor Milley has spoken publicly about two other controversies likely to be raised at the House hearing — intelligence reports that Russia offered bounty money to the Taliban in exchange for killing American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, and White House resistance to allowing the Army to promote Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to the rank of colonel.

Vindman, who played a central role in the impeachment case against Trump, announced Wednesday that he will retire. A statement by his attorney accused Trump of engaging in a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” that meant Vindman’s future in the Army would “forever be limited.”

Vindman’s name was on a promotion list sent to Esper this year, according to two officials familiar with the matter. But that list was delayed for weeks because the White House asked for an investigation of Vindman, one of the officials said. The Pentagon did a review and found that any suggestion of misconduct was unfounded. One official said the list was sent again to Esper about a month ago, but again was delayed.

A senior defense official said the list was held up by a routine personnel review not related to Vindman. Esper received the final promotion list on Monday and approved it, with Vindman’s name included, and it was expected to be sent to the White House in the next day or two, the defense official said.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal personnel matter.


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