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U.S. defence secretary Esper opposes using military for law enforcement

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

Predecessor James Mattis issues rare, scathing rebuke of Trump

Trump’s threats, actions against protesters condemned

1 year ago
3:14
There was widespread condemnation of U.S. President Donald Trump's threat of military intervention to stop protests, and of having cleared protesters with force for a photo opportunity. 3:14

Breaking with President Donald Trump, U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he opposes using military forces for law enforcement in containing current 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.

Just before Esper spoke, 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."

Meanwhile, Esper's predecessor, James Mattis, issued a rare rebuke of Trump on Wednesday, accusing him of dividing the nation and of ordering the military to violate Americans' constitutional rights. 

"I have watched this week's unfolding events, angry and appalled," Mattis wrote in a statement published by The Atlantic. 

"Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath [that he took] would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside."

Federal forces on Monday fired tear gas into a peaceful protest near the White House, clearing a path so Trump could have his photo taken at a nearby church. 

"We must reject any thinking of our cities as a 'battlespace' that our uniformed military is called upon to 'dominate,'" Mattis wrote.

Esper has come under fire in some quarters for having said on a conference call with state governors that security forces need to dominate the "battlespace" occupied by protesters and looters. Critics accused him of militarizing the crisis by suggesting that Americans are treated like enemies.

Photo op fallout

Esper has also come under fire for taking part in Trump's photo session at St. John's Episcopal Church, which had previously sustained damage from protesters.

Esper said that while he was aware they were heading to the church, he did not know what would happen there.

Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, centre, walked from the White House to St. John's Church in Washington on Monday, along with U.S President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr, left, and several other members of the administration. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

"I was not aware a photo op was happening," he said, adding that he also did not know the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square had been forcibly cleared.

In a Monday address in the Rose Garden, Trump called on governors to ramp up the National Guard presence to tamp down the protests. If they didn't, he said he would dispatch the military to their states — a step rarely taken in modern American history.

WATCH: Tuesday night protests largely peaceful:

Calmer night prevails as protesters return to U.S. city streets

1 year ago
3:20
Many demonstrators defied curfews and there were arrests, but fewer violent clashes with police.  3:20

Trump then walked to the church. It has since been learned that Attorney General William Barr gave the order to clear 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

The Defence 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.

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.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse expressed concern about peaceful protesters being cleared out by force Monday in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

"There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others' property, and no right to throw rocks at police," said Nebraska Republican Senator 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."

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.

Esper also said Wednesday he has ordered an investigation into the use of a National Guard helicopter to fly over protesters.

The helicopter, normally designated for use in medical evacuations, hovered low enough to create a deafening noise and spray protesters with rotor wash on Monday. The commanding general of the D.C. Guard, Maj.-Gen. William Walker, said in a statement Wednesday that he directed the investigation.

The National Guard said it is also initiating a probe into the decision.

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