Secretary of Defense: ‘I Do Not Support Invoking the Insurrection Act’

“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said during a Wednesday morning Pentagon press briefing.

“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. We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said.

Esper’s Wednesday morning remarks addressed several recent Pentagon decisions that have come under significant scrutiny and even resulted in the resignation of one senior defense official thus far. 

Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley accompanied President Donald Trump during his Monday evening Rose Garden remarks during which he vowed to deploy active-duty troops if governors did not act to “quell violence” in their states. Trump then crossed the street to St. John’s church and posed for a photo with a bible. Protestors were reportedly tear-gassed to clear the way for the president’s party -- which included Esper and Milley. 

Esper and Milley attended the “event” unintentionally according to senior defense officials on background. They were en route to the Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in downtown Washington, D.C. when they were diverted to the White House. 

"What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when we arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there,” Esper said during a Wednesday morning Pentagon press briefing. 

Esper also said that reports of tear-gassed protestors were not accurate.

Still, the events of the evening have led to resignations. 

James Miller, a Pentagon official working on the Defense Science Board and former undersecretary of defense for policy resigned Tuesday with a letter to Esper that was shared with the Washington Post

"President Trump’s actions Monday night violated his oath to 'take care that the laws be faithfully executed,' as well as the First Amendment 'right of the people peaceably to assemble,'" Miller wrote. "You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead, you visibly supported it.'"

While Miller is the first to resign over the military’s role in the current national crisis, others have voiced concern over Esper’s use of the word “battlespace,” Milley’s acceptance of his presidentially-appointed role “in charge” of protest response, and the president’s aggressive deployment of troops to D.C.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he called on Esper and Milley to appear before the House Armed Services Committee to "explain this domestic engagement to the American people."

Mostly, Smith said, lawmakers want answers about what the military's plans are.

"What role do they (Esper and Milley) see the U.S. military playing? I want to know what they're planning to do with the U.S. military with the crisis we are having -- what they've done, what they plan to do, how they're going to use the U.S. military in this role," he said, telling reporters, "We don't know any more than you do at this point about why those (active-duty) troops were called to the D.C. region."

And while they have not addressed Esper’s decisions specifically, the Air Force’s chief of staff and its top-ranking enlisted airman have both released messages calling for change and describing George Floyd’s death as a “national tragedy.”

“Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said in a memo released to wing commanders and first reported by Air Force Times.

Wednesday morning, Esper also condemned Floyd's death. But until those remarks, Goldfein was the first and only member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to release such a statement. According to a Washington Post report, senior defense officials including the chiefs of staff were told by the Trump administration not to speak out.

Goldfein’s memo was released hours after Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright -- only the second black man to ever hold the position -- published a lengthy Twitter thread calling for justice and understanding.

As of Tuesday, more than 20,000 National Guard troops had been activated in 28 states in response to the national protesting. The Department of Defense also authorized the deployment of active-duty units from Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Drum in New York to be moved to the national capital region for “prudent planning measure in response to ongoing support to civil authorities operations.”

Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter @ECBHowe.

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