Defense Secretary Mark Esper compared protests in cities across the country over the weekend to “battlespace” in a White House call with governors on Monday, urging leaders overwhelm protestors to restore the peace.
More than 17,000 troops in 24 National Guard jurisdictions, at the direction of their governors, are responding to civil unrest in states from California to Pennsylvania following a weekend of police standoffs with protestors as demonstrations escalated to looting and deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets to control crowds.
“I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper said during the call, according to a recording leaked to the New York Times.
Esper’s comments came after multiple tweets from President Donald Trump throughout the weekend urging “the military" to get involved in riot response, though so far, that has only meant Guard troops mobilized in a state status.
Trump also said Monday that he had put Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley “in charge," but did not specify in what capacity. Milley was on the call, but did not engage.
Spokespeople for Milley did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
“The president says he wants to dominate the streets with National Guard, with a police presence,” Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, told reporters in a briefing Monday, clarifying Trump’s comments on use of the military. “What studies have shown — as Gen. Milley noted, he was in that governors’ call — his points pertain to the National Guard. He noted that there are several studies that indicate when there is an overwhelming National Guard presence, it actually de-escalates the situation and causes less civil unrest.”
She also characterized Milley’s role as more of an advisory one, in line with his job description as the senior-most military adviser to the defense secretary and Trump.
“So Gen. Milley has really been on point talking about the National Guard, the effectiveness, and making sure they are utilized to great effect across the country,” McEnany said.
Trump lamented the amount of time it takes to activate units, suggesting that governors send in more troops.
“I don’t know what it is politically where you don’t want to call out people,” he said. “They’re ready, willing and able. They want to fight for the country. I don’t know what it is. Someday you’ll have to explain it to me. But it takes so long to call them up.”
He went on to name Los Angeles, specifically.
“We’re shocked that you’re not using the greatest resource you can use. And they’re trained for this stuff and they’re incredible,” he added. “Why you’re not calling them up? I don’t know but you’re making a mistake because you’re making yourself look like ― look like fools.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT