WASHINGTON — Hours after more than a thousand active-duty Army units arrived in the Washington, D.C. area to help local law enforcement with protest response efforts, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Wednesday he was going to send them home, only to then change his mind later in the day.
On Tuesday evening, the Pentagon confirmed that approximately 1,600 active-duty troops from Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Drum in New York were flown into the Washington D.C. area, as the nation braced for another day of protests over the death of George Floyd.
The troops, who are "postured" on military bases near the District of Columbia, have so far not taken part in any support to "civil authority operations," the Pentagon said in a Tuesday night statement.
On Wednesday, Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that while he ordered the deployment of 1,600 troops to the region, he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act. The law that would allow President Donald Trump to send the active-duty military to respond to civil unrest in cities 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.
Esper's remarks reportedly angered Trump and his aides at the White House, according to Bloomberg News.
The outlet, citing Trump aides, said the White House viewed Esper's remarks as out of line. Bloomberg said the aides didn't expect Trump to fire Esper.
At the White House, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that she was not aware of any discussions where Esper may have expressed his hesitations of invoking the Insurrection Act.
"I wouldn't get into the private conversations that went on here at the White House," she said, adding that Trump has the "sole authority" to move forward with the measure. "If he chooses to use it he will do it," McEnany said.
When asked if Trump still had confidence in Esper, McEnany gave a dim endorsement.
"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," she said.
A few hours after the briefing, an Army spokesperson told NBC News that Esper had changed his mind about withdrawing troops from the Washington D.C. area after a White House meeting.