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Defense secretary says he opposes using military during protests

ZEKE MILLER, JONATHAN LEMIRE, MICHAEL BALSAMO and ROBERT BURNS
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Breaking with President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he opposes using military forces for law enforcement in containing current street protests. 

Esper said the Insurrection Act, which would allow Trump to use active-duty military for law enforcement in containing street protests, should be invoked in the United States "only in the most urgent and dire of situations." He declared, "We are not in one of those situations now."

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Invoking the Insurrection Act has been discussed as Trump has talked about using the military to quell 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.

Just before Esper spoke, Trump 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 stop violence accompanying some 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." 

Esper, in his Pentagon remarks, strongly criticized the actions of the Minneapolis police for the incident last week that ignited the protests. In their custody, a black man, George Floyd, died after a white officer pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for several minutes. Esper called the act "murder" and "a horrible crime."

Esper has come under fire from critics, including retired senior military officers, for having walked from the White House on Monday evening with Trump and others for a presidential photo opportunity in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, which had previously sustained damage from protesters.

FILE - In this June 1, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church in Washington. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is seen to the right of Trump. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Esper said that while he was aware they were heading to St. John's, he did not know what would happen there.

"I was not aware a photo op was happening," he said, adding that he also did not know that police had forcibly moved peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to clear the way for Trump and his entourage.

Trump put a political spin on his criticism of states with violence. He said, "You notice that all of these places that have problems, they're not run by Republicans. They're run by liberal Democrats."

The Defense Department has drafted contingency plans for deploying active-duty military if needed. Pentagon documents reviewed by The Associated Press showed plans for soldiers from an Army division to protect the White House and other federal buildings if the security situation in the nation's capital were to deteriorate and the National Guard could not secure the facilities.

But interest in exerting that extraordinary federal authority appeared to be waning in the White House. Though the crackdown on the Washington demonstrations was praised by some Trump supporters Tuesday, a handful of Republicans expressed concern that law enforcement officers risked violating the protesters' First Amendment rights.

The situation in Washington had escalated Monday, becoming a potent symbol of Trump's policing tactics and a physical manifestation of the rhetorical culture war he has stoked since before he was elected. Nearly 30 minutes before a 7 p.m. curfew in Washington, U.S. Park Police repelled protesters with what they said were smoke canisters and pepper balls.

"D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination," Trump tweeted Tuesday, after a night in which heavily armed military forces and federal officers swarmed the city. Trump added, "(thank you President Trump!)."

The clampdown followed a weekend of demonstrations outside the White House. Trump had been furious about images juxtaposing fires set in the park outside the executive mansion with a darkened White House in the background, according to current and former campaign and administration officials. He was also angry about the news coverage revealing he had been rushed to the White House bunker during Friday's protests.

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.

The federal government has provided affected states with a list of National Guard resources available to them, the White House official said. The official added that Trump's message to governors was that if they don't use all the tools in their arsenal, they shouldn't expect a sympathetic response to any request for federal dollars to help with cleanup and recovery down.

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, totaling 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. 

Administration officials were privately acknowledging that Monday's events didn't serve the administration well. Some Republican lawmakers, typically in lockstep with the president or at least refrain from publicly criticizing him, said Trump had gone too far in appearing to use force to clear the way for his visit to the church.

"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. "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."

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said of Trump posing for photos holding up a Bible, "I just wish he opened it once in a while."

President Donald Trump walks in Lafayette Park to visit outside St. John's Church across from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

It was Attorney General William Barr who gave the order for law enforcement to clear out the protest before Trump's walk to the church ahead of Washington's 7 p.m. curfew. A person familiar with the matter said the decision was made earlier Monday but had not been executed by the time Barr arrived in Lafayette Park to survey the scene. He verbally gave the order at that time.

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 chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Senior defense officials told reporters Milley was also not aware that the Park Police and law enforcement had made a decision to clear the square or that Trump intended to visit the church. They had been in Washington to coordinate with federal law enforcement officials but were diverted to the White House to brief Trump on military preparations, the officials said.

Lemire reported from New York and LaPorta reported from Delray Beach, Florida. Sarah Blake Morgan in West Jefferson, North Carolina, contributed.