Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared Wednesday that despite President Trump’s remarks earlier this week, he is not in favor of the president invoking the Insurrection Act in order to send the U.S. military to quell violent protests.
During a morning press briefing, Esper addressed controversies surrounding Trump’s stance on violence and looting that has broken out across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, coinciding with other peaceful protests.
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“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 situations,” Esper said. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
In some states, governors have called for the National Guard to assist police, which does not require the Insurrection Act. Esper said he was “very proud” of the National Guard members who have gone out to help.
But Trump has suggested going a step further.
“If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said Monday. Esper already has ordered military police active-duty troops from Fort Bragg and Fort Drum and a ready battalion from the 82nd Airborne to stage in the Washington, D.C. area at Maryland’s Andrews Air Force Base and Virginia’s Fort Belvoir.
Esper on Wednesday then spoke about Trump’s controversial appearance at a D.C. church that had previously been harmed by fire.
Reports had said that the National Guard and U.S. Park Police had used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear peaceful protesters from the area before Trump stopped there for a photo opportunity. Esper said that National Guard members did not do this. The U.S. Park Police has denied this as well, but did acknowledge using smoke canisters and pepper balls on the protesters.
During the brief visit at the boarded-up church, the president stood in front and posed for photographers while holding up a Bible. He was accompanied by a variety of aides and officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr, daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and Esper.
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Defense Science Board member James Miller resigned Tuesday following the incident, citing Esper’s failure to oppose the use of force in clearing the crowd.
“If last night’s blatant violations do not cross the line for you, what will?” Miller wrote in a resignation letter that was published by the Washington Post.
Esper said Wednesday that while he was aware that he and the president, along with a number of others, were going to the church and Lafayette Square, he did not know what was going to happen once they got there. He said he “did not know a photo op was happening” at the church before they got there, and that he had not been briefed on law enforcement’s plans. Esper stated he tries to keep himself and his department out of politics as best he can.
Esper has also come under fire for his use of the term “battle space” when describing how governors should control protests. He stopped short of saying he regretted using that military terminology and claimed it was simply part of the military’s lexicon but that he was not referring to the protesters. “In retrospect, I would use a different word,” he said.
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Before discussing these controversies, Esper addressed Floyd’s death, calling it a “tragedy” and expressing condolences to Floyd’s family and friends.
“Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it,” he said.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin contributed to this report.