Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper made a startling break with President Trump on Wednesday, saying he opposes the use of active-duty troops to help quell nationwide protests while putting clear distance between himself and the White House as questions grow about the Pentagon’s role in the crisis.
Mr. Esper made the comments amid withering criticism from lawmakers and retired officers who said the Pentagon chief has allowed the military to be drawn into a fierce political debate. Bucking the president raises questions about how long he will remain in his post. The White House was noncommittal about his future.
“As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters. “If the president loses faith, we will all learn about that in the future.”
Days after Mr. Trump said he was strongly leaning toward using the military to restore order in Washington and other cities, Mr. Esper told a Pentagon briefing that “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,” he said.
Pentagon leaders mulled whether to send roughly 1,600 troops dispatched to Washington back to their home bases in New York and North Carolina. There were conflicting reports late Wednesday on whether the troop redeployments began. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told The Associated Press that some 200 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division scheduled to leave were staying in the Washington area for now.
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Mr. Esper’s blunt words also underscored the delicate balance he must strike as the leader of a diverse military force with top leaders who are taking increasingly public stands against systemic racism and injustice after the death last week of George Floyd, a black man, during a confrontation with Minneapolis police.
The defense chief, a former defense industry official deeply familiar with the world of Washington politics, sought to keep his department out of the line of fire from the chain of events outside the White House on Monday night.
Mr. Esper said National Guard forces did not use tear gas or rubber bullets as widely reported. He insisted he played no role in the decision to aggressively disband protesters minutes ahead of the president’s extraordinary walk across Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible in front of the historic, riot-damaged St. John’s Church.
But he also acknowledged that he was aware of Mr. Trump’s destination when the walk began.
“I did know … that many of us were going to join President Trump and review damage at Lafayette Park and at St. John’s Episcopal Church,” Mr. Esper told reporters. “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.”
Mr. Esper said he personally ordered an investigation to determine who gave the green light for a National Guard helicopter to fly low over a crowd of demonstrators as an intimidation tactic, and he expressed regret over his widely criticized use of the term “battlespace” in a phone call with U.S. governors this week to describe city streets gripped by protests, riots and looting.
But the secretary made his strongest comments when he discussed Mr. Trump’s threat to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and the role of active-duty forces in a simmering domestic dispute.
“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he said at one point. “I do everything I can to stay apolitical.”
The very suggestion sparked a roiling debate in military circles. Two retired former heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — Adm. Michael Mullen and Gen. Martin Dempsey — raised doubts about the wisdom of employing the military to keep order.
Adm. Mullen, writing this week in The Atlantic, raised the stakes with a direct questioning of Mr. Trump’s leadership.
The admiral said he was confident that the men and women in uniform “will obey lawful orders. … I am less confident in the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”
Gen. Dempsey wrote in a Twitter post that “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.” Retired Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, told CNN in an interview Wednesday that Mr. Esper “didn’t do enough” to keep the military out of the political dogfight.
Mr. Trump has not formally followed through with his threat to use the 1807 law. National Guard troops are active in dozens of states across the country to assist law enforcement, but no active-duty forces have been mobilized other than in the Washington area, where Army troops were placed on standby at bases outside the District of Columbia.
Even some leading Republicans, such as Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, said they had no interest in seeing active-duty forces patrol the streets in their states.
But Mr. Esper’s statement Wednesday is unlikely to be the last word on the controversy, Pentagon watchers said.
“Distancing himself from POTUS, and clarifying that he wasn’t aware what POTUS was going to ask of him, is not only surreal but also suggests SECDEF and POTUS aren’t in [sync]. Not a good look to our adversaries,” Caroline Baxter, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., tweeted Wednesday.
Dissension in the ranks
The president reportedly was irked by Mr. Esper’s comments, which seem to have caught the White House by surprise. Top administration officials offered little in the way of reassurance that the secretary retains Mr. Trump’s trust.
Ms. McEnany appeared to dismiss Mr. Esper’s comments by noting that the president “has the sole authority to invoke the Insurrection Act.”
But with pushback from the military and loud complaints on Capitol Hill, military analysts say there are innumerable risks and unintended consequences to a wide-scale deployment of U.S. forces in the homeland, including the psychological pain it could inflict on the nation and the fear that it could lead to an escalation of tensions.
“Law enforcement and the National Guard receive training for domestic crowd-control operations and are experienced in the local conditions necessary to keep protesters safe while preventing the proliferation of violence. Active-duty troops, however, are trained primarily to kill the enemy in war zones,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, now a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank that advocates a more restrained U.S. foreign policy.
Mr. Esper expressed his opposition after a host of retired military leaders blasted the notion of using the Insurrection Act. But he went much further in seeking to distance himself and the military from the extraordinary events that unfolded at the White House on Monday evening.
He said he was unaware when he arrived at the White House that he would be part of a photo opportunity with the president. Mr. Esper also said he had no knowledge of what was being done on the streets a block from the White House to clear the way for Mr. Trump and his entourage.
“I was not aware of law enforcement plans for the park,” he said. “I was not briefed on them, nor should I expect to be.”
Mr. Esper also made clear that he is not sure who is responsible for directing a National Guard helicopter to conduct low-flying maneuvers in the area. The National Guard is investigating the incident at Mr. Esper’s direction.
The secretary began the press conference by offering his personal thoughts on the death of Mr. Floyd, the subsequent protests and systemic racism in the U.S. It was the first time he spoke at length about Mr. Floyd’s killing.
“The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime,” he said. “The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder. It is a tragedy we have seen repeat itself too many times.
“Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it and to eradicate it,” Mr. Esper continued. “More often than not, we have led on these issues. And while we still have much to do on this front, leaders across DoD and the services take this response seriously.”
Top officials across the military offered similar messages this week as leaders sought to unify the armed forces, confront the Pentagon’s own struggles with racism and express support for those who are peacefully protesting for change.
“As members of the Joint Force — comprised of all races, colors and creeds — you embody the ideals of our Constitution,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley said in a letter to commanders late Tuesday. “Please remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
• Mike Glenn, Lauren Meier and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.