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His remarks come after President Trump earlier this week raised the possibility of invoking the Insurrection Act to send federal troops to assist with law enforcement in some cities.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday that he doesn’t support deploying active duty military troops to U.S. cities to control protests occurring all over the nation in recent days, breaking with a suggestion by President Trump that taking such an extreme measure might be necessary.
"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,” said Esper, a former Army infantry officer, who also served in the National Guard.
"I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he added, referring to the federal law that legal scholars say would give the president leeway to federalize National Guard units or dispatch active duty military troops to enforce domestic laws.
Trump’s suggestion on Monday that he could move to deploy troops under the law elicited strong pushback from some Democratic state and local officials.
Cities around the U.S. have been consumed in recent days by demonstrations brought on by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes—an incident captured on video by bystanders.
While some protests have taken place peacefully and without incident, there have also been violent clashes between police and demonstrators, buildings and vehicles set on fire and, in some locations, rampant looting of businesses. Some law enforcement agencies have also faced criticism for using overly aggressive tactics in response to the demonstrations.
Esper during his remarks sought to address how authorities have responded to demonstrations in Washington, D.C.—particularly an episode that has drawn scrutiny that took place on Monday at Lafayette Square, a park near the White House.
He emphasized that National Guard troops did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas at crowds gathered in the park before Trump and others passed through that area so the president could take part in a photo opportunity at a nearby church.
The U.S. Park Police, a federal law enforcement agency, have acknowledged using both “pepper balls” and “smoke canisters” in its efforts to clear protesters from the area.
The defense secretary said that he was not briefed on what actions law enforcement officials with agencies outside the military planned to take to disperse the demonstrators from the park.
He also said that he had ordered an inquiry into why a National Guard helicopter hovered low over a city block in D.C., but avoided speculating on whether the maneuver was inappropriate. “There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he said. “We will get the facts.”
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.