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House panel wants Pentagon leaders to testify on protests

'Trump's sycophantic approach to leadership may be infecting DoD,' chairman says

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Armed Services Committee has asked top Pentagon leaders to testify next week on U.S. military involvement in policing domestic upheaval, according to Rep. Adam Smith, the panel’s chairman.

The Washington Democrat told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that the Pentagon had not yet replied to the invitation for Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to testify.

Smith said he understands the military has a legally allowable role in law enforcement under extreme circumstances. But he said the Trump administration’s martial rhetoric and the prospect of the president deploying active-duty troops to join reservists already supporting police are “deeply dangerous.”

“If the president is basically threatening to use the U.S. military to go in and enforce the law in U.S. cities, that runs the risk of an extreme escalation in violence and a hugely disruptive practice,” Smith said. “Treating this as a war is, I think, an enormous mistake.”

Smith said he spoke with Milley briefly Monday night to convey his concerns but had not spoken to Esper recently.

If a hearing takes place next week, it could roughly coincide with the Senate Armed Services Committee’s markup of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill (HR 6395), or NDAA, which starts next week.

Smith’s committee may consider its version of the bill later this month. It is likely members, especially Democrats, will look to the include in the NDAA several provisions related to military involvement in U.S. policing.

In the Senate, Armed Services members Tim Kaine of Virginia and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats, are among those who have promised to push provisions on the issue.

‘War’ on U.S. streets?

Smith’s call for Pentagon testimony comes as the military is increasingly involved in efforts to crack down on lawless elements within mostly peaceful nationwide demonstrations in multiple U.S. cities against racial injustice in policing, a protest that has now lasted more than a week.

More than 17,000 National Guard troops have been activated to respond to the unrest in a backup role and at the request of governors.

On top of those troops, Trump signaled Monday he intends to use active-duty military personnel, if he deems it necessary, and even if governors do not want them. A few hundred active-duty military police are already on standby.

In a call with governors Monday, Trump spoke of the unrest as a “war” and described the need to “dominate” protesters. He made similar rhetoric in remarks later Monday in the White House Rose Garden.

Except for passing references to peaceful protesters, Trump has characterized the demonstrators as mostly threats and “domestic terrorists.” He has said little about their concerns.

Likewise, Esper, in the call to governors, referred to U.S. cities as the “battlespace,” which is military jargon for a war zone.

A senior defense official said Tuesday that Esper was merely using language he is accustomed to.

While Trump spoke Monday evening, a few hundred yards away in Lafayette Square park forces from several federal agencies on horses and on foot — reportedly including D.C. National Guard troops under the president’s command and holding “Military Police” shields — forcibly evicted peaceful demonstrators, reportedly with little warning.

The forces used pepper spray, rubber bullets, flash-bang shells and batons, according to multiple reports from the scene. The president then conducted a photo op in front of St. John’s Church, holding a bible.

The defense official acknowledged to reporters Tuesday that D.C. National Guard have deployed with batons and possibly pepper spray but said they did not have rubber bullets or tear gas.

“They did not at any point last night fire on any protestors or do anything of the sort,” the official said.

Brass as ‘props”

Esper and Milley strolled with the president in Lafayette Square Monday evening, with Milley wearing combat fatigues.

Critics have questioned whether it was appropriate for Pentagon leaders to lend themselves to the event. Smith said they were used as “props.”

At the Pentagon Tuesday, the senior defense official said Esper and Milley were not aware they would be asked to participate in the Lafayette Square activities until shortly before the request was made.

After the fracas, a reporter asked Milley, as he visited D.C. National Guard troops, what his message to them is.

“Protest but protest peacefully,” Milley said, in an exchange widely broadcast on Twitter. “Just allow freedom to assemble and freedom of speech. That’s perfectly fine. We support that. We took an oath to the Constitution of the United States of America to do that and to protect everyone’s rights.”

Smith said Milley’s message was fine but “he might have misread the optics of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in uniform walking around the nation’s capital.”

Smith has said before that he is worried that the president’s insistence on absolute loyalty from subordinates may be skewing the judgment of officials across the executive branch, including at the Pentagon.

“Trump’s sycophantic approach to leadership may be infecting the DoD,” Smith told reporters Tuesday.

GOP Resistance

Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House panel, issued a statement Tuesday that threw cold water on the idea of an Esper-Milley hearing in the near term.

Thornberry suggested the hearing might be premature because the president has not invoked the Insurrection Act, a legal prerequisite for him to send active duty troops to assist in law enforcement.

Thornberry also expressed the worry that a hearing would unfairly expose Esper and Milley to a political crossfire.

“I am concerned that in the current environment, it would be all too easy to put our men and women in uniform in the middle of a domestic political and cultural crisis,” Thornberry said.

But it is the president who has accentuated the active and reserve U.S. military’s role, and Esper and Milley are voluntarily implementing the president’s orders.

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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