Voices grow in condemnation of Trump's military response to protests
High-ranking current and former defense officials are piling on condemnations of President Trump’s handling of this week’s protests following the death of George Floyd.
On Friday, 89 former military officials — including Defense secretaries Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter — wrote in an op-ed that they were “alarmed” at Trump’s threats to order troops to quell protests.
“As former leaders in the Defense Department - civilian and military, Republican, Democrat and independent - we all took an oath upon assuming office ‘to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,’ as did the president and all members of the military," they wrote. "We are alarmed at how the president is betraying this oath by threatening to order members of the U.S. military to violate the rights of their fellow Americans.”
The op-ed, published in The Washington Post, came hours after the release of a letter, signed by 280 former senior U.S. diplomats and military leaders, calling out Trump over his threats to use military forces to scatter protesting crowds.
“Many of us served across the globe, including in war zones, diplomats and military officers working side by side to advance American interests and values. ... There is no role for the U.S. military in dealing with American citizens exercising their constitutional right to free speech, however uncomfortable that speech may be for some,” states the letter, first reported by Foreign Policy.
Both statements come on the heels of a damning piece penned by former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who seemed to open the floodgates when he offered a blistering rebuke of Trump’s handling of Monday night’s protests in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in the nation.
Trump had urged governors to deploy National Guard troops to “dominate the streets” and stop any civil unrest, threatening to dispatch U.S. military forces to states and cities that do not meet his demands.
Though Trump has yet to invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that allows the president to use the military for domestic law enforcement, he has opted to flood the nation’s capital with more than 4,500 National Guard troops, most of which are from other states.
And on Monday, streets near the White House were forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters by federal law enforcement officers, backed by National Guard troops, a short time before Trump and administration officials walked to nearby St. John's Episcopal Church for a photo-op.
Later than night, a Lakota helicopter flew low over protesters in the nation’s capital in a show of force unseen in an American city in recent decades.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis wrote Wednesday in The Atlantic. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Though they seemed to prompt an outpouring of similar rhetoric, Mattis’s comments were not the first of their kind; the criticism from previously senior defense officials kicked off Tuesday when former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen wrote that he was “sickened” 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.”
“I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent,” McMullen wrote in an op-ed published in The Atlantic.
“I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act,” added the former chairman, who served from 2007 to 2011.
Former White House chief of staff John Kelly said Friday he agrees with Mattis, and that he believes “we really need to step back [and] look harder at who we elect.”
When asked what his counsel on the clearing of protesters would have been, Kelly, a four-star general and former Homeland Security secretary for Trump, said he would have considered whether the White House had the legal authority to act, and whether it was "good for America."
"I would argue that the end result of that was predictable," he said. "The jury’s still out on tear gas and who got hit … but I would’ve argued against it. Recommended against it."
Other former Pentagon chiefs that denounced the militarization of crowd control forces include former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry, who tweeted Thursday that he is “outraged at the deplorable behavior of our President and Defense Secretary [Mark] Esper, threatening to use American military forces to suppress peaceful demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights. This is a deeply shameful moment for our nation.”
Retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command at the time of the Osama bin Laden raid, said “there is nothing morally right” about Trump’s clearing of Lafayette Square.
“I was very pleased to see Mattis, obviously Mike Mullen, John Kelly come out and reinforce what we know to be the principles of the U.S. Military. I have been pleased with the voices that have been raised against the potential for the Insurrection Act,” McRaven said in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
Current Pentagon leadership, meanwhile, have seemed to try to distance themselves from White House messaging in the aftermath of Monday’s events.
On Wednesday, Esper said he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act, declaring that using active-duty military personnel in a law enforcement role should be done only as a “last resort” and that the protests sparked by Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody did not constitute such a situation.
And on Friday he ordered the remaining active-duty soldiers who had been on standby in the Washington, D.C., area since Monday back to their home bases after several days of peaceful protests in the nation’s capital.
The active-duty forces were part of a total 1,600 troops at the ready outside the city if needed after protests swept the country over Floyd’s death, but the troops were never used.
Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also began releasing their own statements acknowledging racial injustices in the country and its military, specifically while reminding troops of their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, a nod that many outside observers read as a rebuke to Trump’s calls for a military response to the protests.
“We all committed our lives to the idea that is America,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley hand wrote in a memo to the force released Wednesday. “We will stay true to that oath and the American people.”