Perils for Pentagon as Trump threatens to militarize response to civil unrest

 “Battlespace” was the word Defense Secretary Mark Esper used to describe protest sites in the United States. The top U.S. general reinforced that image by appearing in downtown Washington in camouflage during a Monday evening crackdown.
Helicopters that could easily be mistaken for active-duty U.S. military ones staged show-of-force maneuvers in Washington above people protesting the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
As President Donald Trump increasingly turns to militaristic rhetoric at a time of national upheaval, the U.S. military appears to be playing a supporting role - alarming current and former officials who see the danger to the U.S. armed forces, one of America’s most revered and well-funded institutions.
“America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” Martin Dempsey, the retired four-star general who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on Twitter.
A current military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced concern about the lasting damage that would come from using the military as a “political prop.”
“Presidents come and go ... the uniform has to be maintained,” the official said.
For Trump’s critics, the Republican president’s reliance on the military in domestic endeavors risks making the armed forces, which are meant to be apolitical, appear aligned with Trump’s political agenda. He has previously employed the military to help stem illegal immigration and used defense funding to build his border wall.
But drawing the military into his response  to the sometimes violent civil unrest that broke out in Minneapolis last week and spread to dozens of cities, is particularly problematic.
At the core of the discomfort is a single idea: The military was designed to protect the United States from foreign adversaries and uphold a constitution that explicitly protects the rights of citizens to protest peacefully.
Even the head of the National Guard acknowledged that responding to domestic crises makes his troops uneasy. So far, more than 20,000 National Guard members have been called up to assist local law enforcement with protests around the country.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visits DC National Guard military officers guarding the White House amid nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
“This mission is an uncomfortable mission. They don’t like doing it, but we can do it,” said General Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau.


Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied Trump on Monday as he posed at a church near the White House while holding a Bible after law enforcement officers used teargas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters.
Trump had just delivered a speech condemning “acts of domestic terrorism” and saying the United States was in the grips of professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, and others.
A senior defense official suggested neither Esper nor Milley knew about the photo-op and had been at the White House to give Trump an update on response efforts.
“As that meeting concluded, the president indicated an interest in viewing the troops that were outside, and the secretary and the chairman went with him to do so. That’s the extent of what was taking place,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In a memo to Defense Department employees on Tuesday, Esper called on personnel to “stay apolitical in these turbulent days.”
James Miller, a former Pentagon official who sits on the Defense Science Board, said he was resigning from the board after seeing the peaceful protesters being cleared by tear gas and rubber bullets before a curfew on Monday and Esper’s accompanying Trump to the church.
“You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it,” Miller said in his letter of resignation, which he published in the Washington Post.
Kori Schake, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and an expert on U.S. civilian-military relations, said Esper and Milley need to be held to account for their “shocking” decision to appear in that setting.
“They made choices. They could have said, Mr. President, I think it would send a bad signal for me to do this,” Schake said.
Alice Friend, a former Pentagon official, said Esper and Milley, by using terms like battlespace, were blurring the lines between American citizens in the United States and enemies in war zones.

“To divide and conquer at home, using the United States military, is an incredible escalation of the government’s coercive power,” said Friend, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A senior defense official, asked about such criticism, said Esper was simply using the terminology he’s accustomed to using as the leader of America’s military.
But the Pentagon’s role in the civil unrest could soon dramatically deepen if Trump decides to deploy active-duty forces, something the U.S. military has been reluctant so far to do.
Trump on Monday threatened to send active-duty U.S. troops to stamp out the civil unrest gripping several cities.
To deploy the military on U.S. soil for law enforcement purposes, Trump would need to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act  - something last done in 1992 in response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.
To that end, the U.S. military has pre-positioned active-duty forces, largely military police and engineers, on the outskirts of the Washington, D.C.-area to potentially deploy, if needed.
The top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, said discussions about the Insurrection Act could easily make U.S. troops “political pawns.”
His Democratic counterpart and chair of the committee, Adam Smith, said he called on Esper and Milley to testify.
“I remain gravely concerned about President Trump’s seemingly autocratic rule and how it affects the judgment of our military leadership,” Smith said.
“The fate of our democracy depends on how we navigate this time of crisis.”
 Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of U.S. cities on Tuesday for an eighth consecutive night of protests over the death of a black man in police custody, clashing with police and looting stores in New York City.
Large marches and rallies also took place in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Seattle. In Washington, D.C., protests were held near the park where demonstrators were cleared out by police on Monday to make a path for President Donald Trump so he could walk from the White House to a historic church for a photo.
Although rallies on behalf of Floyd and other victims of police brutality have been largely peaceful during the day, after dark, each night crowds have turned to riot, vandalism, arson, and looting. On Monday night, five police officers were hit by gunfire in two cities.
Outside the U.S. Capitol building on Tuesday afternoon a throng took to one knee, chanting “silence is violence” and “no justice, no peace,” as officers faced them just before the government-imposed curfew.
The crowd remained in Lafayette Park and elsewhere in the capital after dark, despite the curfew and vows by Trump to crack down on what he has called lawlessness by “hoodlums” and “thugs,” using National Guard or even the U.S. military if necessary.
Dozens of National Guard troops lined up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial behind black crowd-control barriers.


In New York City, thousands of chanting and cheering protesters ignored an 8 p.m. curfew to march from the Barclays Center in Flatbush toward the Brooklyn Bridge as police helicopters whirred overhead.
The crowd, halted at an entrance to the Manhattan Bridge roadway, chanted at riot police: “Walk with us! Walk with us.”
On Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, hundreds of people filled the street from curb to curb, marching past famous landmarks of the film center. Others gathered outside Los Angeles Police Department headquarters downtown, in some cases hugging and shaking hands with a line of officers outside.

Demonstrators face police officers as they take part in a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
Los Angeles was the scene of violent riots in the spring of 1992, following the acquittal of four policemen charged in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, that saw more than 60 people killed and an estimated $1 billion in damage.
Hundreds of protesters also gathered in Denver and Seattle but remained peaceful as darkness fell in the West.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found a majority of Americans sympathize with the protests.
The survey conducted on Monday and Tuesday found 64% of American adults were “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,” while 27% said they were not and 9% were unsure.
More than 55% of Americans said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the protests, including 40% who “strongly” disapproved, while just one-third said they approved - lower than his overall job approval of 39%, the poll showed.
In Minneapolis, Roxie Washington, mother of Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, told a news conference he was a good man. “I want everybody to know that this is what those officers took from me....,” she said, sobbing. “Gianna does not have a father. He will never see her grow up, graduate.”
Floyd died after a white policeman pinned his neck under a knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, reigniting the explosive issue of police brutality against African Americans five months before the November presidential election.
The officer who knelt on Floyd, 44-year-old Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved were fired but not yet charged.


Trump has threatened to use the military to battle violence that has erupted nightly, often after a day of peaceful protests. He has derided local authorities, including state governors, for their response to the disturbances.
The head of the U.S. National Guard said on Tuesday 18,000 Guard members were assisting local law enforcement in 29 states.
The Pentagon said it has moved about 1,600 U.S. Army troops into the Washington, D.C., region.
Trump’s militaristic rhetoric and the growing role of the U.S. armed forces has alarmed some current and former officials.
“America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” Martin Dempsey, a retired four-star general who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on Twitter.
The protests come on the heels of lockdowns to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus which hit African Americans disproportionately with high numbers of cases and job losses.
Some of those who have gathered at the site of Floyd’s killing have invoked the non-violent message of the late U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated in 1968, as the only way forward.
“He would be truly appalled by the violence because he gave his life for this stuff,” said Al Clark, 62, a black man who drove to the Minneapolis memorial with one of King’s speeches blaring from his truck.
“But I can understand the frustration and anger.”
 U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the Republican National Convention set for August in North Carolina would have to be held in another state because of social distancing restrictions ordered by the state’s governor.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper as House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) looks on during a briefing on Hurricane Dorian recovery efforts aboard Air Force One on the ground at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, North Carolina, U.S., September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Trump made the announcement on Twitter hours after Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, rejected Republican demands for a full-fledged presidential nominating convention in Charlotte, telling organizers that planning for a scaled-down event was “a necessity” due to the coronavirus.
Cooper “is still in Shelter-In-Place Mode, and not allowing us to occupy the arena as originally anticipated and promised,” Trump said.
“We are now forced to seek another State to host the 2020 Republican National Convention,” Trump said, without indicating which states were under consideration. The convention will nominate Trump to seek a second term in the Nov. 3 election.
In response, Cooper said via Twitter: “It’s unfortunate they never agreed to scale down and make changes to keep people safe.”
Cooper sent an earlier letter to Republican Party leaders a day before the deadline Trump had set for the state to guarantee that convention attendance would not be limited by social distancing restrictions.
Cooper said he could make no such promise for the four-day nominating convention scheduled to open on Aug. 24.
Without knowing how the COVID-19 outbreak will continue to unfold, he said, “planning for a scaled-down convention with fewer people, social distancing and face coverings is a necessity.”
Republican officials had submitted proposals for a “full convention” rather than one with fewer participants and social distancing as requested by the state, Cooper said.
“As much as we want the conditions surrounding COVID-19 to be favorable enough for you to hold the convention you describe in late August, it is very unlikely,” Cooper said.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a Twitter post that the party would consider other locations for the convention and “begin visiting the multiple cities and states who have reached out to us.”
Republican officials are planning to visit Nashville, Tennessee, this week, according to a person familiar with discussions.
The party was also considering a split convention, with the votes on platform and rules taking place in Charlotte and the speeches and pageantry taking place in another city, such as Jacksonville, Florida, or Las Vegas, said a source familiar with the discussions.
Democrats have delayed their convention in Milwaukee, which was set for Aug. 17 to 20, and left the door open to a revised format. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
 A majority of Americans sympathize with nationwide protests over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody and disapprove of President Donald Trump’s response to the unrest, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday.

Demonstrator hold signs during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
The demonstrations, some of which have turned violent, began last week after a Minneapolis police officer was videotaped kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, even after Floyd appeared to lose consciousness. The officer has been charged with murder.
The survey conducted on Monday and Tuesday found 64% of American adults were “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,” while 27% said they were not and 9% were unsure.
The poll underscored the political risks for Trump, who has adopted a hardline approach to the protests and threatened to deploy the U.S. military to quell violent dissent. The Republican president faces Democrat Joe Biden in November’s election.
More than 55% of Americans said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the protests, including 40% who “strongly” disapproved, while just one-third said they approved - lower than his overall job approval of 39%, the poll showed.
A separate Reuters/Ipsos poll found that Biden’s lead over Trump among registered voters expanded to 10 percentage points - the biggest margin since the former vice president became his party’s presumptive nominee in early April.
Twice as many independent voters said they disapproved of Trump’s response to the unrest. Even among Republicans, only 67% said they approved of the way he had responded, significantly lower than the 82% who liked his overall job performance.


The protests have deepened the sense of crisis for a country already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent devastating economic downturn. While many daytime demonstrations have been peaceful, some have led to violent clashes at night between police and protesters.
Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats said they supported peaceful protests but believed property damage undermined the demonstrators’ cause. Less than one-quarter of Americans said the violence was an appropriate response.
Even in rural and suburban areas largely unaffected by the demonstrations, most people expressed support. A little more than half of the rural residents said they were sympathetic to the protesters, while seven out of 10 suburbanites agreed.
Forty-seven percent of registered voters said they planned to support Biden in the Nov. 3 election, compared with 37% favoring Trump. Biden vowed not to “fan the flames of hate” in a speech on Tuesday about the unrest.
Public opinion could be particularly volatile as the protests continue to roil major cities every night. Several police officers were shot on Monday night, and Trump has derided governors who have not asked for military assistance.

On Monday, police used tear gas to clear peaceful protesters near the White House so Trump could pose for a photograph in front of a church.
Americans are divided over the police response. According to the poll, 43% believed the police were doing a good job and 47% disagreed, with a majority of Democrats disagreeing and a majority of Republicans agreeing.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll on the protests was conducted online, in English, throughout the United States, and gathered responses from 1,004 American adults. That poll had a credibility interval - a measure of precision - of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The other poll conducted over the same period regarding Trump’s overall job performance and the 2020 election gathered responses from 1,113 American adults and had a credibility interval of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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