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US protests: Amid tensions between White House, Pentagon, top army officer reaches out to Capitol Hill leaders

Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were sharply criticised for accompanying Trump and thereby giving the impression of endorsing a politicisation of the military.

Published: 07th June 2020 08:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th June 2020 08:33 AM   |  A+A-

A woman shows a 'Stop Racism' sign as she attends a demonstration at the Alexander Platz in Berlin, Germany, Saturday, June 6, 2020, to protest against the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA, that has led to protests in many countries and across the US. A US police officer has been charged with the death of George Floyd. (Photo | AP)

By PTI

WASHINGTON: The nation's top military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, spoke privately with congressional leaders and many other lawmakers as Pentagon officials came under fire for the military's role in containing protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to express her concerns on Tuesday, according to two people who were not authorised to publicly discuss the private conversations and were granted anonymity.

That was the day after authorities cleared protesters near the White House so President Donald Trump could hold a photo opportunity at a nearby church.

Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were sharply criticised for accompanying Trump and thereby giving the impression of endorsing a politicisation of the military.

Milley also reached out Tuesday to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, said another person granted anonymity to discuss the situation.

A third official said Milley had spoke with perhaps 20 or more members of Congress in the days following Monday's photo op and Trump's implicit threat to invoke the Insurrection Act to permit him to use federal troops in a law enforcement role in the nation's capital and in other cities.

The outreach comes as Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have tried to contain damage in the aftermath of Monday's walk with Trump.

Federal authorities used smoke canisters and pepper balls to clear peaceful protesters from a park so the president and his entourage could walk to the church and Trump could pose with a Bible.

Late Friday, Esper and Milley declined a request from Democrats to appear before the House Armed Services Committee next week, although on Saturday the Pentagon said the door to testifying was still open.

"This is unacceptable," Rep.Adam Smith, D-Wash, the committee chairman, said in a statement Friday, joined by the panel's 30 Democrats.

"Our military leaders are sworn to be accountable to the people of this country, and Congress is constitutionally responsible for oversight," the Democrats wrote.

"They must appear and testify on these crucial matters in order to meet that responsibility."

The Pentagon's chief spokesman, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, said Saturday evening that Esper and Milley "have not 'refused' to testify."

He said the Pentagon's legislative affairs office "remains in discussion with" the committee on its request for appearances by Esper and Milley.

He said the Army's top civilian and uniformed officials, plus the head of the National Guard of Washington, DC, will brief Smith's committee next week on the presence of the Guard in the capital.

An informal briefing Friday with the secretary of the Army was canceled, according to a congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that had not been publicly disclosed.

The White House has prohibited officials from the administration from testifying before the House unless they have cleared any appearances with the White House chief of staff.

The protests in Washington were among those nationwide following the death of Floyd, a black man who died when a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes.

In the call with Milley, Pelosi raised a number of issues that were spelled out in a subsequent letter to Trump seeking an accounting of "increased militarization" in response to the protests.

Schumer on Tuesday warned Milley and Esper, in a speech on the Senate floor, not to allow the U.S.

military to engage in "ugly stunts" like the event the night before outside the White House.

Esper told reporters Wednesday he was not aware of the operation to clear the park and did not know he was heading into a photo op.

He also distanced himself from Trump's threat to step up the military's role in quelling protests, arguing against invoking the Insurrection Act.

Milley released a message this week to military leaders stating that the Constitution "is founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal and should be treated with respect and dignity" and that it "also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly."

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, R-Okla, defended Milley's handling of the protest.

In his own Senate speech Tuesday morning, Inhofe said he wanted to "set the record straight" after conferring with Milley before and after Monday's events.

Inhofe said Milley "told me that he intends to honor his oath and uphold the delicate balance between civilians and the military, and I fully believe him."

In her letter to Trump on Thursday, Pelosi asked the president under what authority and chain of command the troops were operating in the nation's capital, warning the approach "may increase chaos."

The House Armed Services Committee members said they expect a briefing from the Defense Department by Monday.

The development comes amid the reported tensions between the White House and Pentagon which have stretched to near a breaking point over Trump's threat to use military force against street protests triggered by George Floyd's death.

Friction in this relationship, historically, is not unusual.

But in recent days, and for the second time in Trump's term, it has raised a prospect of high-level resignations and the risk of lasting damage to the military's reputation.

Calm may return, both in the crisis over Floyd's death and in Pentagon leaders' angst over Trump's threats to use federal troops to put down protesters.

But it could leave a residue of resentment and unease about this president's approach to the military, whose leaders welcome his push for bigger budgets but chafe at being seen as political tools.

The nub of the problem is that Trump sees no constraint on his authority to use what he calls the "unlimited power" of the military even against U.S. citizens if he believes it necessary.

Military leaders generally take a far different view.

They believe that active-duty troops, trained to hunt and kill an enemy, should be used to enforce the law only in the most extreme emergency, such as an attempted actual rebellion.

That limit exists, they argue, to keep the public's trust.

Vincent K.Brooks, a recently retired Army four-star general, says this "sacred trust" has been breached by Trump's threat to commit active-duty troops for law enforcement in states where he deems a governor has not not tough enough against protesters.

"It is a trust that the military, especially the active-duty military 'the regulars' possessing great physical power and holding many levers that could end freedom in our society and could shut down our government, would never, never apply that power for domestic political purposes," Brooks wrote in an essay for Harvard University's Belfer Center, where he is a senior fellow.

Even beyond the prospect of using active-duty forces, the presence of National Guard troops on the streets of the nation's capital has drawn criticism, particularly after a Guard helicopter may have used improperly to intimidate protesters.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has made known his regret at having accompanied Trump to a presidential photo opportunity in front of a church near the White House.

He has said he did not see it coming to a blind spot that cost him in the eyes of critics who saw a supposedly apolitical Pentagon chief implicitly endorsing a political agenda.

Esper two days later risked Trump's ire when he stepped before reporters at the Pentagon to declare his opposition to Trump invoking the two-centuries-old Insurrection Act.

That law allows a president to use the armed forces "as he considers necessary" when "unlawful obstructions. Or rebellion against the authority of the United States" make it impractical to enforce U.S. laws in any state by normal means.

Esper said plainly that he saw no need for such an extreme measure, a clear counterpoint to Trump's threat to use force.

Almost immediately, word came from the White House that Trump was unhappy with his defense secretary, who often mentions his own military credentials as a West Point graduate and veteran of the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq.

After a night of sometimes violent protesting in Washington last Sunday, Esper pulled several active-duty units, including a military police battalion, to bases just outside the nation's capital.

He never called them into action and may have figured that positioning them close to the capital would give him more time to dissuade Trump from resorting to the Insurrection Act.

On Friday, officials said the last of those active-duty units were being sent back home.

Trump lost his first defense secretary, retired Marine Gen.

Jim Mattis, over an accumulation of grievances, and it took an unusually long time to replace him.

For half a year after Mattis resigned in December 2018, the Pentagon was run by acting secretaries of defense "three in succession, the longest such stretch of interim leadership in Pentagon history" before Esper took over last July.

This week, Mattis added weight to the worry that Trump is militarizing his response to the street protests in Washington and across the nation.

Calling himself "angry and appalled," Mattis wrote in an essay for The Atlantic that keeping public order in times of civil unrest is the duty of civilian state and local authorities who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.

"Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict, a false conflict, between the military and civilian society," Mattis wrote.

The worry felt among Pentagon leaders is reflected in the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen.

Mark Milley, reaching out privately to members of Congress in recent days to discuss concerns about use of the military on American streets.

Milley has been publicly quiet since he caused a stir by joining Esper on a walk with Trump across Lafayette Square for a presidential photo opportunity Monday.

The optics were awkward.

Police had forcibly pushed peaceful protesters out of the way just before Trump and his entourage strolled to St.

John's Episcopal Church in the square, where Trump held up a Bible.

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