Trump visits Mattis and the Pentagon in 2018. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Over the course of just a few hours, President Trump was rebuffed by the Secretary of Defense over his call for troops in the streets and accused by James Mattis, his former Pentagon chief, of trampling the Constitution for political gain.

Why it matters: Current and former leaders of the U.S. military are drawing a line over Trump's demand for a militarized response to the protests and unrest that have swept the country over the killing of George Floyd by police.

The backlash began when protesters and journalists were violently expelled from Lafayette Park so that Trump — flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley — could walk across the square to St. John's church.

  • Esper also drew criticism for urging governors to "dominate the battlespace" if protests turned violent.

The response from former military leaders was swift and harsh, particularly considering their previous reticence to wade into politically charged waters.

  • Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote that Trump had "laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest" and "risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces."
  • Martin Dempsey, another former Joint Chiefs chairman, called Trump's rhetoric "extremely dangerous" and tweeted, "America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy."
  • Other former members of the military’s top brass warned of unprecedented danger to civil-military relations and to the entire “American experiment.”
  • The blow from Mattis landed most forcefully. He invoked the battle against Nazism and accused Trump of violently dispersing righteous protests “for a bizarre photo op ... with military leadership standing alongside.”

The criticism reverberated through the Pentagon, and its leaders began to draw a line.

  • Esper expressed regret over his comments to the governors, claimed he "did not know a photo op was happening" at the church and — in a direct challenge to Trump — said active-duty troops should not be sent into American cities.
  • That infuriated Trump, who has asked for names of potential replacements, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports. Sources close to Trump predict that he will sideline Esper, rather than fire him.
  • White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointedly did not offer Esper any public backing on Wednesday, saying only that “should the president lose faith,” he won’t keep it a secret.

Milley, meanwhile, sent a letter to military leaders reiterating their duty to preserve and protect the Constitution, including the freedoms of speech and assembly.

  • In a handwritten addendum, he wrote: “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America — we will stay true to that oath and the American people.”
  • Army leadership released a similar letter, and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy emphasized the military's duty to protect those who "peaceably assemble" in a tweet.
Milley (R) and Esper (C) on their much-criticized walk. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

"It’s important for them to speak with one voice," Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary (2011–2013), tells Axios of the military's leaders.

  • "It's critical at this point that all of them join hands and take a strong position for what’s right, with the hope that that unity can send a message to the president that he ought to back off."

Panetta says he finds it hard to put himself in Esper's shoes because the presidents under whom he served "would not take advantage of you and your position."

  • Panetta says Esper and Milley should not have been surprised that Trump would seek to “use a photo op to make a point.”
  • “I've been in that position, where you're caught up in a crisis and everyone says 'let’s do this' and 'let’s do that.' It’s kind of mob rule in the White House."
  • "People start moving and you start to feel that if you don’t move with the mob you’re not part of the team. That may have been what brought them into that situation."
  • “I know Esper well enough to know that it probably impacted his own conscience, as secretary, and his sense of what the Pentagon should be in a moment of crisis.”

Panetta says Esper and Milley were both likely affected by the flood of criticism.

  • "Military leaders inside and outside [the Pentagon] made clear that they had to make the right decision."
  • By doing so, in Panetta’s view, Esper “clearly put his job at risk.”

The bottom line: "Deep down, there’s always a lurking question about if the president does something, or demands something that is wrong, what do you do?"

  • "Most secretaries have been spared that moment because they haven’t experienced a presidency like the one we’re experiencing today."
  • "But with this president, I think everyone at the Pentagon in a leadership position made a decision that it’s better for them to hang together."

Driving the news: A White House spokesperson reiterated on Thursday that "all options are on the table," including invoking the Insurrection Act to send troops into the street.

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, often discussed as a possible defense secretary, wrote a heavily criticized op-ed urging Trump to follow through.
A demonstration Wednesday night near the White House. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty

But while protests have continued in Washington and other major cities, there have been fewer scenes of violence and looting as the week has carried on.

  • Trump and his allies argue that's because of the heavy National Guard presence and his threats of overwhelming force.

It appears those threats will no longer be backed by the 82nd Airborne, which was dispatched to the D.C. area but never entered the capital.

  • Esper has reportedly ordered those troops to return home — though he issued the same order on Wednesday before reversing it after meeting with Trump.
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser has ended Washington's curfew and is calling for the massive presence of the National Guard and other federal forces — including some who refuse to identify themselves — to leave the city.
  • The buzz of helicopters has quieted for the moment. A large new fence and street closures are intended to keep protesters away from the White House.

What to watch: If the scene at St. John's church proves the climax of America's current militarized moment, it may be in large part because the military men in the photo —and many outside of it — decided to draw a line.

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