Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday issued a remarkably strong statement in apparent opposition to the president, saying he opposes invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active-duty troops into the streets at this time to quell violent protests.
In a Pentagon briefing, Esper broke his lengthy silence regarding the surge of protests nationwide following the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police.
President Donald Trump warned this week that he was ready to have active-duty troops maintain order on the streets if state governors were not up to the task. Already, more than 20,000 National Guard troops have been activated to support law enforcement officers in cities across the country.
"I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," Esper said, adding that it was intended to be used in times when order had completely broken down. "We are not in one of those situations now."
Esper said the Guard is best suited to back up local law enforcement.
"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, adding that, in his judgment, the unrest nationwide has not reached that point.
"It is not something we seek to do," he said of the use of the military in law enforcement.
At times, however, the military can be asked "to maintain law and order so that other Americans can exercise their rights," he added.
Esper also said he regrets urging governors to "dominate the battlespace" against protesters in a Monday call with the president.
The SecDef has come under fire from retired four-star generals and others for those remarks.
"In retrospect, I would use different wording," Esper said, adding that "battlespace" is a typical term used in the military and used to describe "a bounded area of operations."
"It's not a phrase focused on people, and certainly not on our fellow Americans, as some have suggested," he said.
In Twitter posts Tuesday, retired Army Gen. Tony Thomas, who led U.S. Special Operations Command, and retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Joint Chiefs Chairman, both said Esper was out of line for referring to American streets as a battlefield.
"America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy," Dempsey wrote.
Thomas posted: "The 'battle space' of America??? Not what America needs to hear … ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure … ie a Civil War."
At the Pentagon, Esper said "battlespace" was a term familiar to defense reporters. "It's something we use, day in and day out. There are other phrases that we use day in, day out, that you'll understand -- that most people don't understand.
"It is part of our military lexicon that I grew up with, and it's what we routinely use to describe a bounded area of operations. It's not a phrase focused on people, and certainly not on our fellow Americans, as some have suggested," he said. "That's what I was encouraging other governors to consider," he said. "In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we are militarizing the issue."
Esper began the 20-minute Pentagon news conference with expressions of sympathy for Floyd's family and pledges of the military's commitment to defending First Amendment and civil rights while eliminating racism in the ranks.
"With greatest sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the department," he said. "Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, confront it and eradicate it."
Much of Esper's 20-minute news conference centered on his role in Monday evening’s events in DC, including a photo op with the president for which he has faced heavy criticism.
Esper said he wasn't aware of a plan to clear the streets near the White House of protesters to allow Trump to make the brief walk across Pennsylvania Avenue to St. John's Episcopal church at the north end of Lafayette Park.
The church had been vandalized Sunday, and a fire in the basement caused minor damage, according to police.
"I was not aware of law enforcement's plans" for street clearance, Esper said. "I was not briefed on them, nor should I expect to be."
He said the decision to move against the protesters was "a law enforcement action."
"That was not a military decision; it was not a military action," although National Guard members participated, he said.
Esper was less clear on how he ended up in a group photo with Trump and Attorney General William Barr in front of St. John's.
He said that he and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley joined Trump on the walk, with the thought of possibly speaking to National Guard troops in Lafayette Park.
"I did know that, following the president's remarks on Monday evening, that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St. John's Episcopal Church," he said. "What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going, when we arrived at the church, and what the plans were once we got there."
Trump posed alone for a photo holding a Bible in front of the church and then for a group photo.
Esper did not respond directly when asked whether he regretted being in the photo, but said, "I was not aware a photo op was happening."
"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 sometimes I'm not as successful," he said. "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."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.