Mark Esper said he does not think the president should invoke the Insurrection Act and send the military to police cities amid the widespread turmoil from Floyd's death

By Sean Neumann
June 03, 2020 04:20 PM
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mark esper, donald trump
Defense Secretary Mark Esper (left) and President Donald Trump
| Credit: Alex Wong/Getty; Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday morning that he did not support President Donald Trump invoking the Insurrection Act, which would allow Trump to send the military into states in response to protests and unrest in the wake of George Floyd's death.

"I say this not only as secretary of Defense but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard: 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, 56, told reporters.

"I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," he said.

Attorney General Bill Barr reportedly ordered law enforcement on Monday to forcibly disperse a protest outside the White House to make way for Trump, 73, and aides to walk to a nearby church for photographs.

The president had threatened earlier Monday that, if the turmoil wasn't quelled around the country to his satisfaction, he would send the military into states. The White House said the Insurrection Act of 1807 empowers such a move.

Multiple governors soon said they would not support that decision, however. (The National Guard has been activated across much of the country, though they are legally empowered to act as law enforcement in their respective states.)

Protests since Floyd's death have spread to all 50 states and in Washington, D.C.

Many of the demonstrations have been peaceful but some have also descended into looting and violence. Several major cities have instituted curfews.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not clearly respond to a question Wednesday about how close Trump was to invoking the Insurrection Act, which he's repeatedly threatened to use despite governors — and now the defense secretary — saying that the current protests do not warrant military intervention.

"He has the sole authority to invoke the Insurrection Act," McEnany said, adding that Trump "will do so" if he deems it necessary in order to "protect Americans."

"I am your president of law and order and an ally to peaceful protesters," Trump said from the Rose Garden on Monday. "Our country always wins." (Elsewhere, he has slammed protesters as "thugs" and "terrorists" and said they must be dominated by government forces.)

Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, while he said he couldn't breathe.

That officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with murder and manslaughter but has not entered a plea; he and three other officers involved have been fired.

White House protests
U.S. Park Police push back protestors near the White House on Monday.
| Credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty
White House protests
Military police officers restrain a protestor near the White House on Monday.
| Credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty

The New York Times reports that "about 1,600 airborne troops and military police have been ordered to be positioned outside the capital," according to U.S. officials. The federal government has broader powers in D.C., compared to the states.

Earlier this week Esper appeared to try and distance himself from Monday's use of law enforcement for Trump's controversial appearance in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, which the White House says was an effort to project resolve.

The defense secretary, who accompanied Trump on his walk to the church, had told NBC News, “I didn’t know where I was going," adding, "I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.”

Later, however, Esper said that he did actually know where he and the others were heading, though he said he didn't know there would be a photo-op.

Speaking with reporters at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, McEnany was vague about how Esper's public split with the president would affect his job.

"As of right now, Secretary Esper is Secretary Esper,” she said. "With regard to whether the president has confidence, I would say if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I'm sure you all will be the first to know."

"Should the president lose faith," McEnany said, "we will all learn about that in the future."

Trump nominated Esper last July.

His previous defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned in December 2018 in large part due to a disagreement with Trump over pulling troops out of Syria, where the U.S. was providing military support for allies against the Islamic State, according to the Times.