Donald Trump’s own defence secretary said on Wednesday he was against deploying active-duty troops to counter protesters, just days after the US president suggested just that.
Mark Esper, who heads up the Pentagon, said he opposed using the Insurrection Act – a two centuries-old law that allows a president to put soldiers in US streets which Mr Trump had indicated he wanted to use on Monday.
“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,” Mr Esper said.
“We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
The comments came the day after Mr Esper distanced himself from Mr Trump’s decision to walk through ground that was cleared when peaceful protesters were pushed back by chemical gas and flash bangs.
Mr Esper said he had thought the trip into Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, had been to inspect the damage from protesters and talk to troops but was unaware of the planned photo-op.
It came as Barack Obama, the former US president, arranged a television address to the nation over the protests – the first time he has done so since the demonstrations broke out.
As the country’s first and only African-American president there has been interest in his message to those taking to the streets after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On Monday, Mr Obama published an article which called for demonstrators not to “excuse”, “rationalise” or “participate in” violence as scenes of looting and heated clashes between protesters and police played out across the country.
However the piece did not name Mr Trump or give any explicit criticism of his handling of the demonstrations, which have now stretched to more than 140 countries.
Tuesday night, the eighth night of protests across the country, saw widespread breaking of curfews and peaceful demonstrations but thankfully fewer known incidents of violence than other nights.
At the White House, more than a thousand gathered beyond the 7pm curfew but, separated from officers by a new 8ft fence, most then drifted away.
In New York, incidents of looting continued but some protesters were blocked from entering Manhattan.
On Wednesday there were new developments in the arrest of Derek Chauvin, the white officer who pinned Mr Floyd to the ground with a knee on his neck for more than eight minutes despite pleas of “I can’t breathe”.
Mr Chauvin, arrested last Friday, had his third-degree murder charged upgraded to second-degree murder. The three offices with Mr Chauvin during the incident were also arrested.
Such a public break between the defence secretary and the US president, as happened with Mr Esper, are rare.
Mr Esper’s comments in recent days were said to have gone down “very poorly” in the White House, according to a senior official there quoted anonymously by CNN.
Mr Trump had used his Rose Garden address on protests on Monday to warn governors if they did not stop lawlessness he would “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them”.
The comment had widely been seen as an indication that Mr Trump was considering using the 1808 Insurrection Act to put soldiers on the streets.
Part of the act reads that “whenever there is an insurrection in any state against its government, the president may, upon the request of its legislature or of its governor if the legislature cannot be convened,” send in military troops.
However Mr Trump’s threat to deploy troops on Monday combined with the use of force to drive protesters back so he could pose with a bible by a church near the White House has faced a backlash on Capitol Hill.
Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said: “I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of God as a political prop.”
Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said: “I don’t think militarization is the answer to the anxiety, the fear, the distrust, the oppression we feel right now.”
Mr Trump showed no sign of backing down on Twitter on Wednesday. In one tweet he said those on the streets included “killers, terrorists, arsonists, anarchists, thugs, hoodlums, looters, Antisa & others”.
Antifa is a far-left militant group. In another he wrote: “I’ve done more for Black Americans, in fact, than any President in US history, with the possible exception of another Republican President, the late, great, Abraham Lincoln.”
The threat of the protests triggering a spike in coronavirus cases has heightened amid news that testing sites across the country are being forced to close down.
Dr Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease physician with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told NBC: “Any disruption to testing is going to make it harder to find cases.”
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