Breaking with President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active duty forces to quell civil unrest and added that he regretted using the word "battlespace" to describe areas gripped by protest.
"I don't support invoking the Insurrection Act," Esper said, referring to a statute the president could invoke the deploy troops to respond to the protests.
Trump threatened Monday to send U.S. military forces to cities and states that fail to quell violence spiraling from protests over the death of a black man in police custody.
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.
"The National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations in support of local law enforcement,” Esper said. “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 also appeared to draw another distinction with the White House, saying that while he knew he would be joining Trump to walk into Lafayette Square in front of the presidential residence on Monday, he was not aware of specific plans, including what would happen when the delegation reached St. John’s Episcopal Church. Law enforcement forcibly cleared a park outside the White House of peaceful protesters so the president could take a picture in front of a church holding a Bible.
Esper said he thought he would be reviewing damage in the plaza and at the church.
“I did know we were going to the church. I did not know a photo op was happening,” Esper said.
Esper and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have come under fierce criticism for joining Trump on the trip, saying it heightened the sense of tension in America amid protests over the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis.
In his Pentagon remarks, Esper strongly criticized the actions of the Minneapolis police, in whose custody George Floyd died after an officer held his knee to Floyd's neck for several minutes. Esper called the act “murder” and “a horrible crime.”
This report contains material from Reuters, The Associated Press, and Bloomberg News.
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