Defense Secretary Mark Esper broke with President Donald Trump on the issue of using active-duty troops to put down riots that have rocked American cities including Denver.
Esper's comments Wednesday ended 48 hours of tense silence from military leaders including U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, which would be tasked with leading any active-duty units tasked with riot control. The secretary disavowed the legal basis that would allow the deployment of active-duty troops, a move that Trump threatened Monday.
"I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," Esper told reporters during a news conference.
The president can deploy active-duty units to enforce federal laws under the act, a law passed in 1807 but sparingly used since the Civil War. The wide discretion the president once had in using troops in domestic situations was curtailed by Congress with the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which bars using troops in a law enforcement capacity in any case short of insurrection.
Esper said federal troops could be used to police cities "only in the most urgent and dire of situations.
“We are not in one of those situations now,” he said.
Trump drew criticism for Monday remarks that pledged use of active-duty forces without the consent of local authorities to quell rioting that has devolved from peaceful protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota after a white police officer pressed his knee to the black man's neck for several minutes.
"If a city or 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," Trump said during a Rose Garden speech.
The White House gave a cryptic response Wednesday when asked whether Esper's statement changed his standing with President Trump.
"With regard to whether the President has confidence, I would say if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I'm sure you all will be the first to know,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
In Colorado Springs, Northern Command has refused to answer questions about the use of active-duty troops. Fort Carson, home of an active-duty military police battalion that was alerted for possible riot-control deployment, referred all questions to a Pentagon number that went immediately to a full voicemail box that wouldn't accept messages.
Over Monday and Tuesday, several active-duty and retired officers reached by The Gazette worried that using federal troops against rioters would sew dissension in the ranks and tarnish the military's image at a time of looming budget cuts.
"It's just a bad idea," one retired senior Army officer said of the move.
Retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took to Twitter on Monday to criticize the use of active-duty troops in riot control.
"America is not a battleground," Dempsey wrote. "Our fellow citizens are not the enemy."
Blocking the use of active-duty troops doesn't put the military on the sidelines as violent protests continue.
The National Guard, controlled by governors, can be legally used to help police riot-torn streets to enforce state laws.
In 24 states, including Colorado, Guard troops have been called in to support police as they control rioting. In Denver and elsewhere, the Guard forces have played support roles, rather than entering into direct confrontation with protesters.
Northern Command, which includes a task force that oversees troops in and around Washington, D.C., hasn't commented on the role it is playing to help civilian authorities control rioting.
That's in stark contrast to the public approach the command has taken in its efforts to provide support to efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus. The command is charged with defending the continent from attack and providing Pentagon support to civilian agencies in times of need.
The command has helped distribute military supplies and has overseen the deployment of medical troops to hard-hit areas, ordering the sailing of Navy hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles in March and sending a Fort Carson medical unit to Seattle.
In a Wednesday letter to troops, Esper highlighted the work the military has done to combat coronavirus and natural disasters.
"Throughout these response efforts, I have been incredibly proud of our Service members and their hard work to assist our fellow American," Esper wrote. "This past week, our support to civil authority mission — that had been focused on COVID-19 — changed. Our National Guard are now also being called upon across the country to help protect our communities, businesses, monuments, and places of worship.”