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Military Begins Staging Around Washington to Quell George Floyd Protests

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 6/2/2020 Paul D. Shinkman

Photo gallery by Reuters

The Defense Department has begun positioning active duty troops around the Washington area in anticipation of President Donald Trump following through on his historic threat Monday to use the military to quell widespread and at-times violent protests across the country, including in the nation's capital, if local authorities didn't do more to stop them.

Active duty military police and combat engineers had not entered the District of Columbia but were, as of Monday evening, staging in the region – likely on one of the military bases nearby – "to ensure faster employment if necessary," according to a senior defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity. Some had come from units based elsewhere in the country, but the official declined to offer specifics. Other news outlets, including Military.com, reported soldiers from the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg in North Carolina were among the forces that had deployed.

In Trump's first national address since widespread protest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the president Monday evening threatened to use the military to "quickly solve the problem" if state governors and local authorities didn't do more to "dominate the streets" and stop the protest movement "that has spread throughout our country."

Trump has singled out far-left protesters known as antifa and over the weekend said he would designate it a terrorist organization, despite the left-wing "anti-fascist" militant group having no clear organization or leadership. It also remains unclear how Trump could make such a designation legally, since no current statute gives the U.S. authority to declare wholly domestic groups terrorist organizations in the same way that it can foreign groups.

Widespread protests intensified into the night in D.C. and elsewhere after Trump spoke, many in violation of local curfews. It was not clear as of Tuesday morning how Trump planned to follow through on his warning, though in a tweet he said "D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination."

A U.S. president has not invoked the authorities to employ active duty military forces against U.S. citizens since the LA riots in 1992 during the administration of George H.W. Bush, using the collection of statutes now known as the Insurrection Act. Active duty troops have not policed the streets of Washington, D.C., since the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Other presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, used the law to enforce desegregation during the civil rights era.

Uniformed forces with the District's 1,200-member National Guard operating under local authorities were employed as of Monday to protect the White House and elsewhere in D.C. The defense official said the Pentagon had requested Guard troops from Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Utah to deploy to the District to provide additional support. 

Trump's pledge Monday has raised alarm among many senior leaders who believe the president has begun unravelling the series of laws and statutes – including the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 – originally designed to create an unambiguous legal separation between the federal military and the citizens it is bound to defend.

"President Trump's decision to invoke the Insurrection Act, and his inflammatory rhetoric, proves that he cannot lead us through these tumultuous times and unite the country. Instead, he has decided to rely on the use of force to address those who he views as a threat," Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement late Monday. "The domestic deployment of our armed services is an incredibly serious undertaking that should not be taken lightly. It is un-American to use our service members to 'dominate' civilians, as both the President and Secretary of Defense have suggested. We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship."

The Washington state Democrat was referencing a phone call Trump held with governors in which he ridiculed them for not doing more to stop widespread protests, including activating more of their National Guard troops.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and principal military adviser to the president, also participated in the call. Some of their remarks prompted widespread concern after an audio recording was leaked, particularly Esper's assertions that "we need to dominate the battlespace," evoking language typically reserved for military operations overseas.

"The sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates, and we can get back to the right normal," Esper said.

The secretary and Milley, wearing his camouflage uniform, were among those who walked behind Trump to St. John's Church for a photo op following the president's remarks Monday evening.

Milley and Esper will help run a central command center overseeing the military response to the civil unrest, along with other officials from the departments of Defense and Justice.

a truck on a city street: A military police Humvee blocks the street in downtown as demonstrators protest during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Washington D.C. on June 1, 2020. - President Donald Trump vowed Monday to order a military crackdown on once-in-a-generation violent protests gripping the United States, saying he was sending thousands of troops onto the streets of the capital and threatening to deploy soldiers to states unable to regain control. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana / AFP) (Photo by JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images) © (JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP/Getty Images) A military police Humvee blocks the street in downtown as demonstrators protest during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Washington D.C. on June 1, 2020. - President Donald Trump vowed Monday to order a military crackdown on once-in-a-generation violent protests gripping the United States, saying he was sending thousands of troops onto the streets of the capital and threatening to deploy soldiers to states unable to regain control. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana / AFP) (Photo by JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, himself an Army veteran, was among the most vocal proponents on Monday for activating military units to quell protesters, tweeting, "let's see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they're facing off with the 101st Airborne Division."

Some constitutional law experts fear Trump will misuse powers so rare that some presidents have hesitated to invoke them for fear of the appearance of tyranny.

"The problem isn't the authority to use federal troops for domestic law enforcement. It's that so many of us don't trust how this president would use them," Steve Vladek, a professor at the University of Texas, wrote in a string of tweets late Monday. "The Insurrection Act requires a formal proclamation in order to be invoked. Trump threatened to use it if state National Guards aren't effective. But vague threats and ambiguous speeches don't cut it. He wants to look tough without actually taking responsibility."

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