Jun 3, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Esper, Milley in talks to testify before House Armed Services Committee

Defense Secretary Mark Esper talks to reporters at a press conference

Esper speaks at a White House coronavirus briefing April 1. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Pentagon is in talks with the House Armed Services Committee to arrange for Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley to testify next week about President Trump's threats to federalize forces to respond to protests across America, several sources familiar with the committee's plans tell Axios.

Why it matters: Their potential testimony is significant in light of Esper's remarks that he and Milley "were not aware" that federal law enforcement would use physical force and chemicals to disperse peaceful protesters outside the White House on Monday.

  • Esper also said Wednesday that he does not currently support invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, the law that would be used to federalize forces.
  • Both comments caught the White House off guard and have left Esper in precarious standing with the president, sources close to Trump tell Axios.

"The department has acknowledged the request, but details are still to be determined, including the date," a source familiar with the conversations tells Axios.

Between the lines: It's still unclear whether the Trump administration will allow Esper and Milley to testify. The White House has a history of blocking administration officials from participating in House investigations.

  • As of Wednesday evening, a decision had not yet been made, an administration official told Axios.
  • "Generally, the committee is insulated from some of the more partisan politicking that happens. So I don't think that there would be the same type of complete stonewalling," a source familiar with the talks said.
  • "That said, it would not shock me if the department came back and said they would send other senior ranking officials, but not necessarily the Sec Def and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs."
  • A Pentagon official told Axios that while some members "have expressed keen interest in expanding the politicization of this," Esper and Milley aren't eager to testify about the justification for an action the president hasn't yet taken.

What they're saying: “I have serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protestors," HASC Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement Tuesday.

  • "The role of the U.S. military in domestic U.S. law enforcement is limited by law. It must not be used in violation of those limits and I see little evidence that President Trump understands this fundamental premise."
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