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Esper abruptly reverses decision to dismiss active duty troops deployed to Washington DC area after White House meeting

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds an end of year press conference at the Pentagon on Dec. 20, 2019 in Arlington, Va. Esper said the Pentagon will likely request funding from the next COVID-19 recovery bill for medical supplies and economic relief for defense contractors. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)
June 03, 2020

Active military forces that had been brought into the National Capitol Region around Washington D.C. were reportedly being sent back to their home bases, according to a Wednesday afternoon report by the Associated Press. Hours later, however, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reversed that decision.

The Associated Press originally reported that around 200 troops of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Immediate Response Force were being sent back to their post in Fort Bragg, N.C. Reports then indicated that additional active military units placed on standby around the nation’s capital would be drawn down in the coming days. In an updated Associated Press report Wednesday, McCarthy confirmed Esper has changed his mind and halted the troop drawdown, keeping them in place for the time being.

McCarthy noted that Esper reversed the original decision after a meeting at the White House, but did not clarify if Esper had met with President Donald Trump. McCarthy said the reversal was meant to ensure there are enough active-duty troops available to respond to civil unrest.

An official Pentagon statement confirmed around 1,600 active military troops from the U.S. Army’s 16th Military Police Brigade from Fort Bragg and the 91st Military Police Battalion from Fort Drum, N.Y. had been brought into the National Capital Region by Tuesday night, along with an infantry battalion, designated Task Force 504, comprising the Army’s Immediate Response Force.

The abrupt decision cames hours after Esper said during a press conference that he did not support the use of active military troops to respond to domestic civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis Police custody last week.

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“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said.

“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he added.

While National Guard units can be called upon to carry out law enforcement action by the states, the use of active-duty federal troops is more constrained by Title X laws. The Insurrection Act has been one exemption to Title X laws.

Esper’s Wednesday announcement appeared at odds with an address Trump made Monday evening, calling on states governors to deploy their National Guard units to respond to civil unrest where necessary and warning that he would call on active military units to respond if the governors did not call in their own National Guard units.

“If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United State military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump said Monday.

McCarthy told the Associated Press that there is still a desire to avoid using active-duty troops in response to the civil unrest, but said those troops should still be on standby.

“It is our intent at this point not to bring in active forces, we don’t think we need them at this point,” McCarthy said. “But it’s prudent to have the reserve capability in the queue, on a short string.”

During a Wednesday White House press conference, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked how Trump felt about Esper’s earlier press statement.

“Does the President still have confidence in Secretary Esper?” a reporter asked.

McEnany said she would not speak as to Trump’s personal, private opinions of Esper or describe their specific conversations.

“With regard to whether the president has confidence I would say if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper I’m sure you will all be the first to know,” McEnany said. “As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper and should the President lose faith we will all learn about that in the future.”