Former Commanders Fault Trump’s Use of Troops Against Protesters
After military helicopters carried out a “show of force” mission to discourage protesters, retired senior military leaders condemned their successors for deploying such tactics.
- Source: New York Times
WASHINGTON — Retired senior military leaders condemned their successors in the Trump administration for ordering military units on Monday to rout those peacefully protesting police violence near the White House. Read More Mark Esper breaks with Trump on using troops against protesters.
As military helicopters flew low over the nation’s capital and National Guard units moved into many cities, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly aligned themselves behind a president who chose chemical spray and rubber bullets to clear peaceful protesters from a park so that he could stage a photo op at a nearby church.
In so doing, Mr. Esper, who described the country as a “battle space” to be cleared, and General Milley, who wore combat fatigues on the streets of the capital, thrust the two million active-duty and reserve service members into the middle of a confrontation in which the “enemy” was not foreign, but domestic.
The reaction has been swift and furious.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on Twitter that “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.” Gen. Tony Thomas, the former head of the Special Operations Command, tweeted: “The ‘battle space’ of America??? Not what America needs to hear … ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure … ie a Civil War.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, another former chairman, wrote in The Atlantic: “Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.”
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Television networks broadcast images of General Milley and Mr. Esper walking behind Mr. Trump as he crossed Lafayette Square on Monday evening to pose for a photograph while holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Church.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Esper joined the president’s call with governors, saying, “We need to dominate the battle space” — a comment that set off a torrent of criticism.
More than 40 percent of active-duty and reserve personnel are people of color, and orders to confront protesters demonstrating against a criminal justice system that targets black men troubled many.
The Air Force’s top enlisted airman used Twitter to express his anger.
“Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks … I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes,” Kaleth O. Wright, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, said in a Twitter thread, citing the names of black men who died in police custody or in police shootings.“I am George Floyd … I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.”
Neither Mr. Esper nor General Milley knew when they went to the Oval Office on Monday that they would be taking part in the president’s photo op, Pentagon officials said. Nor did they know, officials said, that law enforcement personnel would be firing chemical spray and rubber bullets on protesters in Lafayette Square before they crossed that park with Mr. Trump.
During the meeting in the Oval Office, which officials said became heated, General Milley and Attorney General William P. Barr argued against invoking the Insurrection Act to override governors and send active-duty troops to states where there are protests. They were able to get Mr. Trump to hold off for now, but the president nonetheless ordered active-duty troops deployed to the one place where he did not have to go through governors: the District of Columbia.
After the Oval Office meeting, officials said, Mr. Trump said he wanted to review personnel who were deployed outside the White House. Along with a number of White House staff members, Mr. Esper and General Milley joined the president — and prompted outrage.
“Ridiculous. General Milley, who I respect, is embarrassing himself,” Michael McFaul, the former United States ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, said on Twitter. “I worked 3 years at the White House at the National Security Council. I never once saw Admiral Mullen come to the building ready for war.”
James N. Miller, who served as an under secretary of defense for policy under Mr. Obama and on the Defense Science Board until Tuesday, when he abruptly resigned, told Mr. Esper in his resignation letter that he believed the defense secretary had violated an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” because of his backing of Mr. Trump’s actions on Monday night.
“You have made life-and-death decisions in combat overseas; soon you may be asked to make life-and-death decisions about using the military on American streets and against Americans,” he wrote in the letter, which was published Tuesday night by The Washington Post. “Where will you draw the line, and when will you draw it?”
Late Tuesday, the Pentagon announced in a statement that a battalion of combat troops from an Army quick-reaction force based at Fort Bragg had moved into the Washington area, as well as a military police headquarters unit from Fort Bragg and a military police battalion from Fort Drum.
In all, about 1,600 troops were being deployed to the Washington area from Fort Bragg and Fort Drum, the statement said, noting that the troops would be stationed initially at nearby bases outside the District of Columbia.
The Pentagon said this was “a prudent planning measure in response to ongoing support to civil authorities operations.”
“They are on heightened alert status,” the statement said of the troops, but added that they were not yet participating in operations inside the city limits.
The order to deploy troops to confront protesters and looters prompted one military official to liken the order to Mr. Trump requesting his own “palace guard.”
This week, Mr. Trump said, without elaborating, that General Milley was in charge of the effort to confront the protesters and looters.
At the Pentagon, officials expressed surprise at the president’s comments, and referred questions to the White House. But officials noted that all National Guard members now deployed in the United States are under the authorities of the governors.
Defense Department officials said that if those troops are federalized — that is, put under the power of the president rather than governors — that would normally be done under the auspices of United States Northern Command, which oversees military units on American territory, and not the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff.
Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called on Tuesday for Mr. Esper and General Milley to testify before lawmakers about the potential deployments of United States military personnel to states.
As soldiers arrived on Monday, clad in camouflage uniforms and clutching riot shields labeled “military police” to reinforce the line of crowd control officers guarding Lafayette Square yards from the White House, the crowd of about 400 protesters responded with verbal taunts. “Fascists!” some yelled. Others booed. A few shouted expletives.
Around 10 p.m., the military stepped up its attempts to suppress the protesters.
A crowd making its way through the Chinatown area of Washington had gone relatively unbothered by law enforcement, having snaked across town, blocking roads and chanting, “We can’t Breathe,” “George Floyd” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The group, for the most part, was peaceful.
A Black Hawk helicopter, followed by a smaller medical evacuation helicopter, dropped to rooftop level with its searchlights aimed at the crowd.
Tree limbs snapped, nearly hitting several people.
Signs were torn from the sides of buildings.
Some protesters looked up, while others ran into doorways.
The downward force of air from the rotors was deafening.
The helicopters were performing a “show of force” — a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents. The maneuvers were personally directed by the highest echelons of the District of Columbia National Guard, according to a military official with direct knowledge of the situation.
The Guard did not respond to a request for comment.
The deployment is also challenging for National Guard units, which inherited a legacy from the Revolutionary War militia, the citizen-soldiers who were ready to put down their plows and pick up weapons to defend their country.
Today, when the National Guard can be dispatched for an array of missions — like combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, helping with flood relief or providing assistance to coronavirus victims — that balance is more complicated.
Members of the Guard generally report to the governor of their state, but when units come under the command of the president, federal law prohibits them from being used domestically except under some very limited circumstances.
As of Tuesday morning, governors in 28 states and the District of Columbia had activated more than 20,400 National Guard troops to assist state and local law enforcement in support of civil unrest operations, the National Guard said.
In the current unrest, military personnel specialists say, the Guard is caught between expressing anguish over the killing of a black man, George Floyd in Minneapolis, and supporting civilian authorities in quelling the violent protests and looting that followed.
“Most of the soldiers will have sympathy for the peaceful protesters and be angry about Floyd’s death, but they’re probably angry at the violence as well,” said Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who has studied the military for decades.
“It puts them in a fraught position.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a reporter in the Washington bureau and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff
Helene Cooper is a Pentagon correspondent. She was previously an editor, diplomatic correspondent and White House correspondent, and was part of the team awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, for its coverage of the Ebola epidemic. @helenecooper
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared three Pulitzer Prizes. @EricSchmittNYT
Jennifer Steinhauer has been a reporter for The New York Times since 1994. She has worked on the Metro, Business and National desk, and served as City Hall bureau chief and Los Angeles bureau chief before moving to Washington in 2010. She is the author of a novel, two cookbooks and the upcoming book “The Firsts” the story of the women of the 116th Congress. @jestei