Updated Jun 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Esper catches White House off guard with opposition to military use, photo op

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a press briefing Wednesday that he does not currently support invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that permits the president to use active-duty troops on U.S. soil, in order to quell protests against racial injustice.

Why it matters: President Trump threatened this week to deploy military forces if state and local governments aren't able to squash violent protests. Axios reported on Tuesday that Trump is backing off the idea for now, but that he hasn't ruled it out.

What he's saying: "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. "We are not in one of those situations now."

Behind the scenes: Multiple sources close to the president tell Axios' Jonathan Swan that they were perplexed by comments Esper made to NBC News Tuesday night and wondered what Esper was trying to achieve.

  • The combination of that interview plus Wednesday's press conference — in which he undercut the president — has the secretary of defense in precarious standing with the White House.
  • After attending a meeting at the White House following his press conference, Esper reversed a decision to send home about 200 active-duty troops who had been called to assist with the protests in Washington, according to the AP.

The latest: Asked whether Trump retains confidence in Esper, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday: "As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper, and should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future."

The big picture: Esper attempted to clean up a number of comments he made earlier this week, including about the need to "dominate the battlespace" in a call with governors: "In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to distract or allow some to suggest we were militarizing the issue," he told reporters.

  • Contradicting comments he initially made to NBC News Tuesday, Esper also said that he did, in fact, know that Trump was leading him to St. John's Church on Monday after police forcibly cleared protesters from outside the White House. A Pentagon spokesperson later clarified to NBC that Esper was aware the church was one of the locations the group would be visiting to view damage from the protests.
  • “I did know we were going to the church," Esper said. "I did not know a photo op was happening. ... I do everything I can to try to stay apolitical and to try and stay out of situations that may appear political."
  • Esper also said that an investigation has been launched into the use of a medevac helicopter to hover low over protesters in Washington as a "show of force," and he called the killing of George Floyd by police a "horrible crime."

Of note: Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a memo to top military commanders on Wednesday vowing to "stay true to that oath and the American people."

  • "Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it," Milley stated in the memo, tweeted by the joint chiefs of staff.
  • "This document is founded on the essential principles that all men and women are born free and equal and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with Milley's comments.

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