Trump's Pentagon chief opposes Insurrection Act, says sending in active-duty troops to tackle unrest should be 'last resort'

AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyIn this June 1, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John’s Church in Washington.
  • Secretary of Defence Mark Esper spoke out Wednesday against invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty US military inside the country to respond to unrest following the death of George Floyd.
  • “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,” he said at the Pentagon.
  • The secretary stressed that the US is not currently in one of those situations and expressed a desire to continue to rely on the National Guard and local law enforcement.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Breaking with President Donald Trump, the secretary of defence said Wednesday that sending active-duty troops to address nationwide unrest should be a “last resort.”

“I have always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations in support of local law enforcement,” Defence Secretary Mark Esper said at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

“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,” he said. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

In an address at the White House Monday evening, Trump sparked fears that he might invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows the president to deploy US forces inside the country in response to domestic insurrection preventing normal law enforcement through executive order.

The 213-year-old law, an exception to the Posse Comitatus Act barring federal troops from engaging in domestic law enforcement, was last invoked in response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

The US is again in a state of unrest in response to police brutality and racism.

“We are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country. We will end it now,” Trump said Monday, encouraging mayors and governors to deploy the National Guard to “dominate the streets.”

“If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” he continued, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Speaking about Washington, DC, in particular, Trump said that he was “dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers.”

The president’s remarks Monday came after a call with state leaders, during which Esper encouraged them to “dominate the battlespace,” a reference to American cities.

Esper said Wednesday that looking back on it now, he would have used “different wording so as not to distract from the issues at hand and suggest we are militarizing the issue.”

Following the president’s announcement, the Department of Defence moved 1,600 US Army soldiers into positions around DC, but these forces have remained outside the city at bases and are not participating in the ongoing response to civil disturbances.

Lawmakers have been outspoken about the risks of sending in active-duty forces to response.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a US Army veteran, said that Trump is a “five-time draft dodging coward who is more interested in looking like a leader than actually being one,” adding that “we cannot allow any Commander in Chief to use our active-duty service members to silence our neighbours. To drive yet another wedge between Americans.”

Current nationwide unrest follows the death of George Floyd, who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protests have erupted across the country, and while many demonstrations have been peaceful, there have been numerous reports of violence, rioting, looting, and property damage.

The National Guard reports that 30,000 Guard members are currently responding to unrest in 31 states and Washington DC.

Speaking out for the first time this began, Esper said that “the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime,” adding that the officers involved should be “held accountable for his murder.” The secretary has taken criticism for not speaking out sooner.

“Racism is real in America and we must all do our very best to recognise it, to confront it, and to eradicate it,” Esper said.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.