U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he opposes use of the Insurrection Act, which would allow President Donald Trump to use active-duty military forces for law enforcement duties in containing street protests.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Esper said active-duty troops in a law enforcement role should be used in the United States “only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” adding, “We are not in one of those situations now.”
Use of the Insurrection Act, enacted in 1807, has been discussed as Trump has talked about using the military to quell sometimes violent protests in U.S. cities. Esper has authorized the movement of several active-duty Army units to military bases just outside the nation’s capital, but they have not been called to action.
In his Pentagon remarks, Esper strongly criticized the actions of the Minneapolis police, in whose custody George Floyd died last week after an officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for several minutes. Esper called the act “murder” and “a horrible crime.”
In a Monday address in the Rose Garden, he called on governors to ramp up the National Guard presence to tamp down the protests. If they didn’t, Trump said, he would dispatch the military to their states — a step rarely taken in modern American history.
Trump then walked to a nearby church. It has since been learned that Attorney General William Barr gave the order for law enforcement to clear out a protest in the area ahead of Washington’s 7 p.m. curfew.
After the demonstrators had been pushed out of the park, Trump emerged from the White House with several officials, including Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Hundreds of soldiers in nation’s capital
On Monday, 715 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the capital area in case the situation in Washington escalated. They are stationed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Two more 82nd Airborne battalions, totalling 1,300 soldiers, are on standby at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, according to documents reviewed by the AP. The plan is named Operation Themis.
The soldiers on standby in the Washington area are armed and have riot gear and bayonets. After the AP first reported the issuing of bayonets Tuesday, orders came down that soldiers would not need the knife-like weapons that can be affixed to rifles, according to two soldiers from the 82nd who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they would be punished for commenting publicly.
The idea that bayonets could be used in confronting civilians provoked an outcry on social media and among some members of Congress.
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police,” said Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. “But there is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
Criticism for Trump also came from an unlikely source in former presidential candidate and 700 Club host Pat Robertson.
“[Trump] said, ‘I’m ready to send in military troops if the nation’s governors don’t act to quell the violence that has rocked American cities.’ A matter of fact, he spoke of them as being jerks. You just don’t do that, Mr. President. It isn’t cool!” said Robertson, the televangelist.
WATCH: Tuesday night protests largely peaceful:
Trump on Wednesday took credit for a massive deployment of National Guard troops and federal law enforcement officers to the nation’s capital, saying it offered a model to states on how to quell protests nationwide.
Trump argued that the massive show of force was responsible for protests in Washington and other cities turning more calm in recent days and repeated his criticism of governors who have not deployed their National Guard to the fullest.
“You have to have a dominant force,” Trump told Fox New Radio on Wednesday. “We need law and order.”