Politics

Esper is still Defense secretary 'as of right now,' White House says after reports say Trump was angry with him

Key Points
  • "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," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
  • In an extraordinary break with President Donald Trump, Esper told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon that he did not support the invoking the Insurrection Act.
  • Esper's remarks reportedly angered Trump and his aides at the White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Mark Esper, U.S. Secretary of Defense, speaks during his swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 23, 2019.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper was still in his post, the White House said Wednesday, even as reports said President Donald Trump was displeased with the Pentagon chief's public disagreement over the Insurrection Act.

"I would say if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper I'm sure you all will be the first to know. 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," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a press briefing.

Neither the Pentagon nor the White House immediately responded to requests for comment.

In an extraordinary break with Trump, Esper told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon that he did not support the invoking the Insurrection Act, a law from 1807 that would allow Trump to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to respond to civil unrest stemming from protests against police brutality across the country.

"I say this not only as secretary of Defense, but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard, the option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire situations. We are not in one of those situations now," Esper said.

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

McEnany responded by saying that Trump has the "sole authority" to move forward with the measure. "If he chooses to use it he will do it," she said of the Insurrection Act.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visits DC National Guard military officers guarding the White House amid nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

Esper's remarks angered Trump and his aides at the White House, according to Bloomberg News. The news organization, citing Trump aides, said the White House viewed Esper's remarks as out of line. Bloomberg News said the aides didn't expect Trump to fire Esper. A senior administration official later told NBC News that Esper's comments "were not well received" inside the White House. 

During a White House address Monday night, Trump stopped short of invoking the Insurrection Act but threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military if states failed to quell demonstrations.

"As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property," Trump said at the time, while protesters were being pushed away from the White House.

After the address, Trump, accompanied by Esper and other Cabinet officials, walked to nearby St. John's Church. There, Trump posed for cameras holding up a Bible. Esper later said he thought he would be surveying damage along with the president.

Esper, who was previously the secretary of the Army, ascended to the top spot in the Pentagon less than a year ago. His tenure as top Pentagon official follows the resignations of Trump's first Secretary of Defense James Mattis and then-acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

Protests, some of which have turned violent, have rocked the nation since the late-May death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose neck was knelt on by a Minneapolis police officer for more than eight minutes during an arrest. The officer was charged with murder and manslaughter, and three others, who were at the scene, were charged with aiding and abetting him. 

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Defense Sec. Mark Esper: Don't support deploying active-duty troops to respond to civil unrest in DC area