Reports: President Trump Not Happy with Defense Secretary Mark Esper Distancing Himself over Civil Unrest

US President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting …
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump is not happy with his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, for comments he made during a press briefing Wednesday opposing using active-duty military forces to quell violent riots across the country and distancing himself from what he called a “photo op” with Trump earlier in the week, according to reports.

Esper stated at a press conference Wednesday that he did not support using active-duty forces in a law enforcement role, just two days after the president ordered them to the capitol, warning he would use them if violence and looting continued.

“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,” Esper said.

According to reports, the president was not happy with Esper’s comments. Bloomberg reported:

President Donald Trump and other top aides were upset that Defense Secretary Mark Esper publicly opposed the deployment of active-duty forces to confront protesters in U.S. cities, as Trump has suggested, and viewed the Pentagon chief’s remarks as out of line.

Officials told the outlet that there was no recent discussion of using the Insurrection Act, so the president enacting it was unlikely, but that Esper should have “moderated his comments to draw less of a distinction with the president.”

Politico reported that Esper is “walking on thin ice, according to administration officials.”

Trump had ordered active-duty military forces to deploy to the capitol region on Monday, a day after rioters defaced national monuments, looted, and burned buildings, including a historic church just one block from the White House. Those forces arrived to military bases in the region later that night.

Trump warned he would use them if the violence did not end. On Monday evening, the city was relatively quiet compared to previous nights, and officials privately wondered if active-duty forces would be needed after all.

However, Esper’s public opposition reportedly caught the White House off-guard, and may have undermined the deterrence the presence of active duty troops in the region had provided.

Esper had found himself the target of criticism in recent days from the left and the president’s critics, who argued that he had let himself be used as a political prop, and was allowing the president to politicize the military by using them to restore order.

Esper was one of the several cabinet members who accompanied Trump on Monday as he walked from the White House across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church in a show of strength and held up the Bible.

Hours before, police had cleared the path, which had been blocked by protesters who had staged themselves at the White House over the past week. Video showed police forcefully pushing back demonstrators and using smoke cannisters to clear the crowd. Critics falsely accused them of using tear gas.

Esper, in an exclusive interview with NBC News and at the press conference on Wednesday, claimed that he did not know what would happen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, calling it a “photo op.”

“I did know that we were going to the church. I was not aware a photo-op was happening. Of course, the president drags a large press pool along with him,” he said.

He added:

And look, I did everything I can to try to stay apolitical and to try — trying to stay out of situations that may appear political, and sometimes I’m successful with doing that, and — and sometimes I’m not as successful. But my aim is to keep the department out of politics, to stay apolitical, and that’s what I continue to try and do, as well as my leaders here in the department.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley did not accompany Esper at the briefing as he normally does, but it is not clear why.

Esper also called the death of George Floyd a “horrible crime” and a “tragedy we’ve seen repeat itself too many times.”

 

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