The White House wanted to have 10,000 active duty troops on the streets of Washington and other cities earlier this week to quell protesters, but Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint of Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley pushed back at the use of any active duty troops, according to a senior defense official.
Esper did move approximately 1,600 active duty troops to be in the Washington, DC, region to respond if needed but the approximately 5,000 National Guard troops already there never needed assistance and the active troops began to leave Thursday night.
A second defense official said Milley strongly felt the threshold – informally described as dire circumstances – for calling in active duty troops could not be met, opening the door to whether such a potential presidential order would be legal.
CBS first reported that the White House wanted 10,000 troops.
Attorney General William Barr and the White House Sunday denied that Trump last week wanted 10,000 active duty troops on the streets of DC and other cities.
“The President never asked or suggested that we needed to deploy regular troops at that point. It’s been done from time to time in our history. We try to avoid it. And I’m happy that we were able to avoid it on this occasion,” Barr said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Your question to me just a moment ago was, did he demand them on the streets? Did he demand them in DC? No, we had them on standby in case they were needed.”
The push for the troops came as DC experienced several nights of unrest, including some looting and violent confrontations, as protests grew over the police killing of George Floyd.
In the end, no active duty troops were deployed onto the streets of Washington.
“The decision was made to have at the ready and on hand in the vicinity some regular troops,” Barr said of the conclusion reached in a Monday morning meeting with Trump and others. “But everyone agreed that the use of regular troops was a last resort and that as long as matters can be controlled with other resources, they should be. I felt, and the Secretary of Defense felt, we had adequate resources and wouldn’t need to use federal troops. But in case we did, we wanted them nearby.”
Meanwhile Alyssa Farah, White House spokesperson, claimed Trump never asked for active duty troops, only National Guard forces.
She said she was in the Monday meeting and that Trump “very clearly directed DOD (Department of Defense) to surge the National Guard – not active duty – after nights of vandalism and arson in DC.”
After violence in DC on Monday, along with a militarized law enforcement presence, Milley held phone calls over two days with Trump’s arch political enemies, the Democratic leaders of Congress.
A congressional source confirmed Milley had a call with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday. A defense official also confirmed a call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday.
The official said Milley made several other calls to members of Congress. And that official told CNN he also talked with Republican leadership in the House and Senate, as well.
While the exact discussions with the Democratic congressional leaders have not been disclosed, by Monday night Milley had already had tense words with Trump that active duty military troops against protesters in DC was absolutely not needed despite the President’s threats, several officials confirmed.
The second defense official said despite a Saturday White House statement of support for Esper, both men remain aware they are at risk of Trump’s ire and there is always the possibility their jobs are at risk.
The outreach to Congress is part of a broader effort by both men to explain their actions and try to move forward in the face of massive personal criticism from former colleagues and members of Congress. So far, the Pentagon has not agreed to a request for them to testify before the House Armed Services Committee.
Both men have also told colleagues they are distressed with the criticism about the walk to St. John’s Church because it became a photo-op with political overtones. When asked if they regret being on the walk, one administration official close to both men answered, “Of course they do.”
Esper this week told reporters he tries to stay out of political events but knows he doesn’t always succeed. Milley has not yet spoken publicly about the walk in which he was in a battlefield uniform.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Attorney General William Barr and White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah.