US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Wednesday that he does not support using active duty troops to quell the large-scale protests across the United States triggered by the death of George Floyd and those forces should only be used in a law enforcement role as a last resort, comments that came after President Donald Trump recently threatened to deploy the military to enforce order.
Esper's attempt to distance himself from Trump's view on using the military to restore order went over poorly at the White House, where he was already viewed to be on shaky ground, multiple people familiar with the matter said, reports the CNN.
"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 of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," Esper said during a briefing at the Pentagon.
Esper also addressed the killing of Floyd, calling it a "horrible crime" and said "racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it."
"The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder. It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times. With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the Department. Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it," he said.
Trump and other top officials, including national security adviser Robert O'Brien, are "not happy" with Esper after his Wednesday remarks, three people familiar with the White House's thinking said.
In the press conference, Esper also distanced himself from a maligned photo-op outside St. John's Church.
One White House official said aides there did not get a heads up about the content of Esper's remarks, including most notably Esper's decision to publicly break with the President on the use of the military to address unrest in US cities.
Esper's comments Wednesday came after defense officials said that there was deep and growing discomfort among some in the Pentagon even before Trump announced Monday that he is ready to deploy active duty forces if local leaders fail to ramp up enforcement efforts.
As tear gas wafted through the air in Lafayette Park across from the White House, Trump announced from the Rose Garden that if state or city leaders refuse "to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents," he will invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that allows a president to deploy the US military to suppress civil disorder.
Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have faced a flurry of questions and criticism in the wake of Trump's comments, pressure that culminated in Esper's appearance in the Pentagon briefing room Wednesday where he attempted to distance himself from the President's rhetoric and clean up some of his own.
Asked about his use of the word "battlespace" when discussing quelling violence on the streets amid civil unrest, Esper attempted to explain that it was "something we use day in and day out ... it's part of our military lexicon that I grew up with ... it's not a phrase focused on people."
"In retrospect I would have used different wording," Esper said.