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As White House braces for largest protest yet, Pentagon sends troops home

National Guard troops in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

The nation’s capital is bracing for the largest protest yet on Saturday since the death of George Floyd, expanding a massive fenced perimeter around the White House, even as the Pentagon sent home hundreds of active duty troops positioned outside the city.

Over 10 days of protests, the security perimeter around the White House has increased, and on Thursday morning extended to the far outskirts of a park complex known as the Ellipse near the National Mall with extensive fencing and barricades.

That was in anticipation of a major event on Saturday, according to the local police department.

“We have a lot of public, open-source information to suggest that the event on this upcoming Saturday may be one of the largest that we’ve had in the city,” Peter Newsham, chief of police of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, said at a news conference on Thursday morning.

It was not immediately clear which groups were organizing the march, but #1MillionDCSaturday was trending on Twitter in a call for 1 million people to march on the capital to protest police brutality against black Americans and the death of Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody.

The United States Park Police told McClatchy that it was using “intelligence to monitor upcoming events,” but would not preview its planning as doing so could “pose a hazard to the public and police.” The White House referred questions about Saturday’s march to the Secret Service, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite the anticipated event, about 700 members of an infantry battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., were being sent home.

The deployment of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Task Force 504, which was based just outside of Washington and did not enter the district at any time during the protests, had raised concerns that President Donald Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act to allow those federal troops to police thousands of protesters who have been gathering nightly in downtown streets.

At the White House on Thursday, principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters that “all options are on the table” for the use of military forces to clamp down on American protesters — a phrase that has traditionally been reserved for dealing with threats overseas.

White House officials have underscored that the president has the “sole authority” to invoke the Insurrection Act. Still, in recent days, they have indicated that he will rely on National Guard troops, amid mounting criticism from top retired military officials over his approach to the protest movement.

“The Department made the decision to return members of some of the active duty units in the capital region to their home base. Military leaders are continuously monitoring this dynamic situation. Return of the remainder of the active duty service members will be conditions-based,” the senior defense official said.

About 600 active duty military police from Fort Bragg and Fort Drum, N.Y., staged outside the city were also sent home on Friday. Those active duty forces had not entered Washington, D.C., leaving policing of the city to law enforcement officers and National Guard troops.

The departure of Fort Bragg and Fort Drum troops from the Washington area comes after reports that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had directed they be sent home on Wednesday, but switched course, and the Pentagon said they would remain in the area.

A senior defense official who spoke to McClatchy on the condition of anonymity said that the Saturday protest was one of the conditions taken into consideration on the decision to send the soldiers home and their departure was a sign the Pentagon was confident it had enough forces on hand without them.

Esper angered the president and his top aides on Wednesday when he expressed public disapproval of Trump’s potential use of the Insurrection Act — without providing advance notice to the White House that he intended to make those comments.

Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army Gen. Mark Milley issued messages to the armed forces Tuesday, reminding them of the public’s right to assembly and protest, and former Defense Secretary James Mattis said Trump’s decisions to use military personnel to support the removal of the protesters was in violation of the Constitution.

Esper attended meetings at the White House later Wednesday. Despite White House frustration with the secretary — and the refusal of top aides to confirm that Trump still had confidence in him — senior administration officials doubt his job is imminently at risk.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday took the unusual step of praising the beleaguered Cabinet member in a tweet that said, “in these challenging times, the President and the American people are very well-served by the expert advice and principled leadership of people like Secretary Esper.”

On Wednesday, Trump said he did not believe it would be necessary to send military troops into U.S. cities. And White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that the use of the military would only come if National Guard troops proved insufficient to quell riots and looting that had been a part of some of the protests.

“If you’ve noticed, the president has been going down a line of progression,” McEnany said. “This president has gone and said the National Guard is the next step. That seemed to be working here in D.C. We’ll see if it continues to work. But rest assured, he has the sole authority to invoke the Insurrection Act. And, if necessary, he will do so to protect American citizens.”


© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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