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Military Officers and Vets Uncomfortable With Trump’s Domestic ‘Battlespace’

Some are quietly pushing back against the president's threat to send troops to states without governors' consent.

President Donald J. Trump is joined by Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Mark A. Milley in the Situation Room of the White House. (Photo by Shealah Craighead/The White House via Getty Images)

The president had barely finished his remarks in the Rose Garden late on Monday afternoon, when senior retired and currently serving U.S. military officers weighed in on his threat to deploy military units to help end the nationwide demonstrations resulting from the killing of George Floyd.

While declaring he was an “ally of all peaceful protesters,” Trump described the disturbances as “domestic acts of terror” and called on local law enforcement officials to “dominate the streets” to end them. But Trump’s payoff quote sounded more like an explicit threat than a political ploy: “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” he announced, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” 

Trump’s proposal was immediately controversial, and particularly in the U.S. military. Some currently serving and retired military officers supported what he said, but many others were infuriated—a marked contrast to the months-long reign of silence among senior officers on the subject of Donald Trump on internet discussion networks. Was Trump’s statement a mistake? “Huge,” a senior retired Army general officer told  me. “A lot of troops agreed with Trump when he [said] he wanted to end the ‘dumb wars in the Middle East.’ Not sure they will agree with him when he tells them to fight wars in the Midwest.” 

This senior officer’s remarks followed a nearly public show of discomfort with an earlier statement from Secretary of Defense and West Point graduate Mark Esper. During Trump’s Monday afternoon discussion with state governors on how best to quell the protests, the defense secretary weighed in with his own solution. “The sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace the sooner this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper said during the conversation, which was later leaked to the media.

Within hours, retired senior officers and former Pentagon officials provided a scathing response to Esper that reflected the views of many inside the building. “When his secretary of defense says that they have to ‘dominate the battlespace’ it means equating Americans to an enemy and waging war on your own citizens,” Ray Mabus, Navy secretary under former President Barack Obama told Politico. 

“This is just a really bad look and, honestly, I think it’s an embarrassment. It’s unnecessarily inflammatory. We should be looking for a way to deescalate the situation, not make it worse,” retired Col. Kevin Benson, a West Point graduate and former director of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, told TAC. “It made my head spin. What in the world is the Secdef doing talking about our own cities as battlespaces?” 

Pentagon officials have since defended Esper’s statement, telling reporter Paul D. Shinkman that Esper was “using the terms that we have,” and that “nothing should be read into the use of that term to denote anything other than it’s a common term to denote the area that we are operating in.”

Despite this, senior military officers claim that, at the very least, the appearance of Esper and J.C.S Chairman Mark Milley walking just behind Trump in the wake of his Rose Garden address signaled their agreement with his threat to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to dampen the civil disturbances that have roiled the country. The nearly universal view among legal experts is that Trump may well be within his rights to do so.

But many military officers offer this cautionary warning. “The statement is controversial and it’s premature,” a Pentagon civilian familiar with the legal ramifications of such an action told me. “So far at least, no one has asked for help.”

According to the act, the president has the authority to deploy the military to states that are unable to put down insurrections or are defying federal law. But according to Pentagon officials, the act has been used sparingly and only when local law enforcement authorities, or a state’s National Guard, are unable to respond effectively to quell riots or enforce federal law—and only after the president issues a proclamation “ordering the insurgents to disperse within a limited time.” 

U.S. Presidents have invoked the act, sending troops into the South during Reconstruction, to enforce desegregation orders in the 1950s and to help put down civil disturbances, as George H.W. Bush did in 1992 when he ordered the military to help Los Angeles authorities respond to civil disturbances after the police beating of Rodney King. 

In fact, the 1992 Los Angeles incident is commonly cited by senior military officers who argue that the act be used sparingly. “Bush’s order deploying the military to L.A. came as a complete surprise,” one senior officer recalls. “We were running around trying to buy up every map of L.A. we could lay our hands on.” 

But military officers also confirm that the simple appearance of federal troops on American streets has had a calming effect, at least historically. When troopers of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to Detroit after four days of rioting (as close to an open “rebellion” as any disturbance in U.S. history), attacks against the police and National Guard ceased. “The appearance of actual soldiers who know what they’re doing seems to signal the seriousness of the situation,” a retired Colonel who consults regularly on military matters with the J.C.S. says. “That was certainly true in Detroit and it was true in L.A. It’s almost like everyone said, ‘hey, let’s do something else tonight.’” 

There is little disagreement with that sentiment, even if the retired community scratched their head over a tweet issued by Sen. Tom Cotton: “If local law enforcement is overwhelmed, if local politicians will not do their most basic job to protect our citizens,” Cotton said, “let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st Airborne is on the other side of the street.” The statement brought an eye roll from one retired officer. “[I’m] not sure we want to test that premise,” he said. 

As crucially, senior Pentagon officials concede that one of the problems faced by any military units deployed domestically is that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish them from highly militarized and mechanized local and state law enforcement units—a national problem that the disturbances have highlighted. Additionally, senior military officers worry that what federal troops can do and what the president thinks they can do might well be two different things, a view that has highlighted the growing civil-military divide that is now a feature of Trump’s presidency. 

One senior military officer was outspoken in his opposition to Trump’s use of the military for domestic purposes, citing J.C.S. Chairman Mark Milley’s appearance, in camouflage, alongside Trump when the president crossed Lafayette Square on his way to St. John’s Church. “I watched this and thought, ‘what the hell are you doing?” 

The problems may, in fact, go much deeper—as even Trump supporters in the military, and in the highly influential senior retired military community, wonder whether currently serving officers would push back against a Trump directive that military units be deployed without the express request of local authorities. “No can do. It’s that simple. This has to be a legal order,” one of the retired senior officers with whom I spoke emphasized. “And I would bet the military will quietly, but firmly hold Trump to that. ‘You want us to go into these cities, fine, but you have to cross the ts and dot the i’s or we’re not going to do it.” 

Another officer with a lifetime of service, including in U.S. war zones, was even more outspoken, speculating that the military is so uneasy with Trump that sending the military into a domestic battleground would come at a high political cost. “If Milley doesn’t want the military to be seen as Trump’s Praetorian Guard, they [senior military officers] better be ready to resign.” 

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