Lawmakers demand answers on president's message of militarization amid protests

Abbie Bennett
June 02, 2020 - 12:15 pm
Law enforcement officers and members of the National Guard monitor a protest on June 1, 2020 in downtown Washington, DC.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Top lawmakers in Congress are demanding answers on how the president and military leaders plan to use active-duty troops in response to nationwide protests, including some that have turned violent. 

Members of the House and Senate called for explanations after President Donald Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to states that failed to quell violent protests and looting during a speech from the White House Rose Garden Monday. Monday evening, National Guard troops, including some helicopters, were part of a law enforcement response to protests in the nation's capital. The entire D.C. National Guard -- about 1,300 troops -- were activated as of Monday evening. 

Trump threatens to deploy active-duty troops if states don't stop violent protests

Active-duty troops also were deployed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to the National Capital region, Pentagon officials confirmed, though they were on standby and did not have standing orders yet. Pentagon officials would not say who the troops were, how many or provide any other details. 

Active-duty military police are being sent to D.C. in response to protests, Pentagon says

On Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smtih, D-Wash., said he has "serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protesters.

"The role of the U.S. military in domestic U.S. law enforcement is limited by law. It must not be used in violation of those limits and I see little evidence that President Trump understands this fundamental premise."

Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer called for a Defense Department Inspector General investigation of "the use of military resources against American citizens" from the Senate floor Tuesday. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., launched an inquiry into the Secret Service response to protesters outside the White House during Trump's speech Monday. 

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Smtih said he called on Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to appear before the House Armed Services Committee to "explain this domestic engagement to the American people." 

Mostly, Smith said, lawmakers want answers about what the military's plans are. 

"What role do they (Esper and Milley) see the U.S. military playing? I want to know what they're planning to do with the U.S. military with the crisis we are having -- what they've done, what they plan to do, how they're going to use the U.S. military in this role," he said, telling reporters, "We don't know any more than you do at this point about why those (active-duty) troops were called to the D.C. region." 

But overall, Smith said he's concerned with the "militarization of this conflict." 

"We need to bring peace back to our streets, but what is absent from the president's approach is addressing ... concerns of peaceful protesters," Smtih said, adding that the president has made "few statements" about police use of excessive force. 

On Monday, Trump called himself a "law and order president" and said he planned to deploy all federal resources necessary to halt violence across the country. 

Smith and other lawmakers, though, were concerned about the president's militarized messaging. 

"If you use the U.S. military, that is further contributing to the idea that this is a war ... war with the citizens of the United States of America," Smith said. "The use of the military, describing this as a war ... is the wrong approach. It's more likely to escalate the conflict." 

Smith particularly took issue with Esper's description of American cities as "battlespace" in a leaked call with the president.

"I'm concerned about ... talking about the United States of America as a battlespace," Smith said. "We want to try to pressure them to tone down the over-the-top rhetoric."

Smith said the National Guard has a role in responding to civil unrest but said active-duty troops are another story.

"We recognize that the U.S. military, this is not their job," he said. "It is not their primary role to go out and enforce laws domestically." 

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Presidents have leeway to use military for domestic purposes

Senator, Army vet calls for active-duty troop deployment, 'no quarter' to violent protesters

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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