Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Bill Barr and the Justice Department Send In Their Own Troops

While military voices criticize Trump's plans to crack down on the violence, federal soldiers of a different kind take to the streets.

Writing in The New York Times on Wednesday, and in the midst of growing public protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton decried America’s “anarchy” and “orgy of violence,” saying that local law enforcement officials “in some cities” are being overwhelmed by the protests. Cotton’s solution was that President Trump invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy the military to quell the demonstrations. “Send in the Troops,” the headline to the Cotton op-ed blared. “The military stands ready.” 

In fact, as recent events show, Cotton got it wrong: the military doesn’t stand ready and it certainly doesn’t want to “send in the troops.” Far from it. How do we know? Because in the hours following the publication of Cotton’s proposal, retired Marine General James Mattis (who served as Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense) and retired Marine General John Allen published articles saying otherwise. The power of their voices should not be underestimated: during their careers, Mattis and Allen were two of the most celebrated officers in uniform, and since the end of their careers, they’ve become icons of the retired military community. 

“We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers,” Mattis wrote in a statement published in The Atlantic. “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values….” 

Mattis went on to criticize Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and J.C.S. Chairman Mark Milley for appearing alongside Trump during the president’s Monday stroll (“a bizarre photo-op,” as Mattis described it) from Lafayette Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church. “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,” Mattis intoned. “At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict— a false conflict—between the military and civilian society.” 

Writing in Foreign Policy, Allen followed suit, in a pointed response to Cotton. “Right now, the last thing the country needs — and, frankly, the U.S. military needs —is the appearance of U.S. soldiers carrying out the president’s intent by descending on American citizens,” he wrote. 

Mattis and Allen weren’t alone in expressing their views. The day before their articles appeared, former J.C.S. chairman Admiral Michael Mullen wrote a scathing critique of the Trump administration’s use of pepper balls and flash bangs against protesters just prior to Trump’s stroll. “I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform,” Mullen wrote. “They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and 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 cross the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.” 

The views of this military triumvirate shocked the Trump administration. Inside the Pentagon, however, senior officers were less surprised with Mattis’, Allen’s, and Mullen’s views than with those expressed by former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey, who is not only known for his reticence in offering his views on political issues, but has been outspoken when other retired officers have done so. That changed on Monday: “America is not a battleground,” Dempsey tweeted. “Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.” 

While it seems likely that the rising chorus of retired military voices had a sobering impact at the Pentagon, it also simply accelerated a process that was already underway, as a senior Pentagon civilian told me. Esper, this Pentagon official claims, was intent to back off his comment within hours of it becoming public and regretted that he’d been included in Monday’s “bizarre photo op” when he stood alongside Trump in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

While Esper’s explanation for his Monday appearance with Trump was muddled, his statement about the use of the military to “dominate the battlespace” was not. “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort,” Esper told the press during a hastily called briefing on Wednesday afternoon, “and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” 

Esper then added that he regretted making the statement: “In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we are militarizing the issue.” In the wake of Esper’s appearance, rumors swept through the corridors of the Pentagon that the defense secretary was either planning to resign—or that Trump would fire him. As of Thursday morning, both options are still in play, with contradictory rumors swirling through the Pentagon that Esper will soon be shown the door—or that, alternatively, his friendship with fellow West Point graduate Mike Pompeo could save him. 

Reports that Esper was embarrassed by his trot-with-Trump hold true also for J.C.S. Chairman Mark Milley, according to a senior Pentagon official. Milley not only followed in Trump’s wake during Monday’s Lafayette Park-St. John’s walk, but was then videotaped on the streets of Washington that same night. 

“Freedom of speech, that’s perfectly fine,” Milley told a group of reporters who tracked him down. “We support that. We took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America to do that, to protect everyone’s rights. That’s what we do. We’ve got the D.C. National Guard out here and I’m just checking their, seeing how well they’re doing, that’s all.” 

That Milley looked uncertain reflected his discomfort with appearing on the streets of Washington, D.C. in camouflage, a senior retired U.S. Army officer who knows him says. “He was chagrined,” this officer told me. “And frankly, this isn’t who he is. He’s a decent guy. He’s not someone who has trouble talking to people.” A second senior retired officer had a similar, if more pointed, take. “He’s walking a really delicate line,” this officer said. “He answers to the president. He can’t just go out and have a press conference, like Esper. So when I look at Milley I feel for him. And you can almost read his mind. I mean at one point Trump says he had put Milley ‘in charge.’ And Milley was probably thinking, ‘in charge of what?’”

In fact, the person that Trump appears to have made the field general of the federal response to the demonstrations, and particularly those in Washington, D.C., is Attorney General William Barr, who is not only not in the chain of command, he’s not even in uniform. If the presence of uniformed officers monitoring the demonstrations in Washington, D.C. is any indication, then Barr has responded to Trump’s desire that the military deal harshly with the demonstrators by flooding the streets with law enforcement officers of the Bureau of Prisons, units of which were flown into the city as early as Tuesday night from Texas and other locations.

Included among the contingent were Crisis Management Teams (CMT) and Special Operations Response Teams (Sort) that are normally deployed to put down prison riots. According to a BOP spokesperson, the teams have been dispatched to Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida, “per the request of the Attorney General.” Photographs of the teams began appearing on social media on Wednesday afternoon, with demonstrators asking them where they were from and who they answered to. “DOJ,” one of the team members told a demonstrator. The teams were not wearing identifying badges, because while all law enforcement officials are required to do so by D.C. law, that statute does not include federal law enforcement forces. 

While the BOP “Sort” teams did not have identity badges or military markings, some demonstrators assumed they were military police, or even members of the notorious right-wing “boogaloo boys.” The report, and a raft of rumors, escalated when it was shown that tattoos sported by Sort team officers appeared to mimic those featured in “The Punisher,” a popular Marvel Comics and Netflix series about a vigilante who appears with a facsimile of a “Totenkopf” or “deaths head” insignia worn by the Nazi military in World War II. The deaths head logo remains controversial, and sparked controversy in local communities when it was stenciled on police cars. 

A number of states, including New York, have established their own Sort Teams, mimicking the federal Bureau of Prisons template. According to the website of Spec Ops Magazine, a typical “Sort team” is armed with “Sig Sauer P228s, Glock 19 pistols, Colt 9mm SMGs, Benelli M1 Super 90 shotguns, McMillan M86 SR Sniper Rifles, 37 mm gas guns, diversionary devices and chemical munitions.” Why such weapons would be needed now on the streets of Washington, D.C. is not clear. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment, but Justice Department officials told a local television reporter that specific information on the teams could not be provided “for safety and security reasons.” 

But the senior Pentagon official with whom I spoke had his own theory: “Makes sense,” he said. “As the military has stepped back, the Justice Department has stepped in.” But when shown a photo of a Bureau of Prisons “Sort Team” deployed in downtown Washington, D.C., a senior retired military officer had a much different take. “These are more Delta wannabes. Now, every law enforcement agency has its own SWAT team,” he told me in an email. “This is not good.” 

Mark Perry is a journalist, author, and contributing editor at The American Conservative. His latest book is The Pentagon’s Wars. He tweets @markperrydc.