Politics

Trump was talked out of firing Defense Secretary Esper over disagreement on protest response, WSJ says

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Key Points
  • President Trump nearly fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper following a disagreement over the methods to quell nationwide protests, but was talked out of it, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • A week ago, Esper publicly broke with Trump during a Pentagon press briefing by saying he did not support Trump's call to invoke the Insurrection Act.
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 — President Donald Trump nearly fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper following a disagreement over methods to quell nationwide protests, but was talked out of it, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing officials.

Trump consulted with several advisors about his intention to fire Esper, his fourth defense secretary, according to the report. The president decided not to immediately fire Esper after talking with confidants, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and James Inhofe, R., Okla.

A week ago, Esper publicly broke with Trump during a Pentagon press briefing by saying he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act — a law that would allow the president to use active-duty forces to respond to civil unrest stemming from protests against police brutality.

"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 on June 3.

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

VIDEO2:2102:21
Defense Sec. Mark Esper: Don't support deploying active-duty troops to respond to civil unrest in DC area

Hours later, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany gave a lukewarm endorsement of Esper when asked about the daylight between Trump and his Defense secretary.

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

"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," McEnany added.

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

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

During a White House address June 1, Trump stopped short of invoking the Insurrection Act but threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military if states failed to quell demonstrations.

Trump said he was taking "swift and decisive action to protect our great capital, Washington, D.C.," adding, "What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace."

"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.

VIDEO6:5006:50
Trump: If states don't take action, I will deploy military and solve problem for them

The protests, some of which have turned violent and led to looting, were triggered by the death last month of George Floyd, a black man. He died while a Minneapolis police officer, who has since been charged with murder, held his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes.

Protesters have been demanding that three officers who witnessed the death also be charged. All four officers involved have been fired.

A day after Trump's remarks, Esper ordered the deployment of 1,600 active-duty Army soldiers from Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Drum in New York to the Washington area. Hours after their arrival, Esper said he was going to send them back home. 

National Guard members deploy near the White House as peaceful protests are scheduled against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Hours later, following a meeting at the White House and reports that Trump was upset with Esper, an Army spokesperson told NBC News that Esper had changed his mind again and would not be sending troops home.

A day later, Esper reversed his decision and ordered several hundred troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to return home to Fort Bragg in North Carolina.