White House Says Esper Still Defense Secretary After Controversy
Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division stand at ease. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

White House Says Esper Still Defense Secretary After Controversy

(Bloomberg) -- White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany indicated that Mark Esper is secure in his job as defense secretary for now after the Pentagon chief publicly opposed the deployment of active-duty forces to confront protesters in U.S. cities, as the president has suggested.

“Should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future,” McEnany told reporters at the White House on Wednesday after aides had said the president viewed Esper’s remarks as out of line.

Esper, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, said the use of active-duty military forces to perform law enforcement within the U.S. is “a matter of last resort” and that the National Guard is better-suited to the job. On Monday, President Donald Trump threatened to send military forces to cities and states that fail to quell violence spiraling from protests over the death of a black man in police custody.

White House Says Esper Still Defense Secretary After Controversy

“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. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

The remarks generated pushback at the White House, where three Trump aides who asked not to be identified said the secretary should have moderated his comments to draw less of a distinction with the president. Two of the officials said there hasn’t been discussion of using the Insurrection Act in more than a day so any imminent move by Trump to invoke the 1807 law was unlikely. Nonetheless, the aides said they don’t expect Trump to seek Esper’s departure.

Esper planned to meet with the president after his news conference Wednesday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, according to a White House official. The meeting was not on the White House public schedule.

The 56-year-old defense chief has been a loyal aide since taking office last July, siding with the president over redirecting Pentagon funds to help build a border wall despite congressional opposition, and vowing that a vaccine against the coronavirus will be delivered by year-end with the Pentagon’s help.

Yet the nationwide protests have joined the virus pandemic as critical issues confronting the president ahead of November’s election. Trump has repeatedly called for a hard-line approach to the unrest the past week, lambasting governors on a call Monday to “dominate” their streets.

The defense chief also appeared to draw another line 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.

Trump and his aides have been widely criticized by many religious leaders and Democrats, as well as some Republicans and former military officials, for the visit to the church, where the president stood briefly holding up a Bible after security forces cleared peaceful protesters from the area using pepper balls and smoke cannisters.

Esper said he thought he would be reviewing damage in the plaza and at the church, but wasn’t briefed on a specific plan since he was called back to the White House after heading toward a command center at the Department of Justice.

“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 remarks to reporters, Esper offered condolences to Floyd’s family, saying his death was a “horrible crime” and a “tragedy we’ve seen repeat itself too many times” in the U.S.

As tensions over protests nationwide have risen, the military has moved more than 1,600 active duty forces into the Washington region -- including units of the storied 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne, but not into the U.S. capital.

The Pentagon initially ordered about 200 of the active-duty soldiers to return to their home base, the Associated Press reported. But hours later, Esper overturned the decision to send the soldiers home, the AP said in a subsequent report.

Retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, a former head of the Joint Chiefs, wrote in The Atlantic on Tuesday that “I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.”

“It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard -- forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church,” Mullen wrote.

Esper’s public remarks Wednesday won praise from a predecessor: former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“I commend Secretary of Defense Esper for taking the position that he took, because military leaders almost in unison do not believe that our military ought to be used to fight our own people,” Panetta, who also led the Central Intelligence Agency, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “It ought to be used to fight foreign enemies.”

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