Trump faces intensifying pushback over domestic use of military

Trump has already deployed military resources in DC and he's threatened to expand operations. The pushback has been "swift and furious."
Image: Trump meets with senior military leaders at the White House in Washington
Flanked by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army Gen. Mark Milley, U.S. President Donald Trump meets with senior military leaders at the White House in Washington, U.S., Oct. 7, 2019.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump has already deployed military resources in Washington, D.C., to be used against civilian protestors, and as Rachel has explained on the show, he's threatened to expand operations -- even in states where governors may object. Also this week, the president said he's put Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "in charge," though it wasn't at all clear what it was Milley would be in charge of.

Americans did, however, see the Army general touring the streets of the nation's capital in his battle fatigue uniform.

The same day, Trump's Defense secretary, Mark Esper, stressed the importance of taking steps to "dominate the battle space," in apparent reference to American soil.

The New York Times reported today, "The reaction has been swift and furious."

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on Twitter that "America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy." Gen. Tony Thomas, the former head of the Special Operations Command, tweeted: "The 'battle space' of America??? Not what America needs to hear ... ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure ... ie a Civil War."

I was especially struck by an essay in The Atlantic from Adm. Mike Mullen, a Bush-appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who wrote, "Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces."

It coincided with the Washington Post publishing a letter from James Miller, a former undersecretary of defense, who resigned in protest yesterday from a Pentagon board.

"Secretary Esper, you have served honorably for many years, in active and reserve military duty, as Secretary of the Army, and now as Secretary of Defense," Miller wrote. "You must have thought long and hard about where that line should be drawn. I must now ask: If [Monday] night's blatant violations do not cross the line for you, what will?"

Politico had a related report overnight, noting that some Defense Department officials are "increasingly uncomfortable" with Trump's vision of an expanded military role on domestic soil.

I can appreciate this framing seems a bit too common, but this might be the mother of all imagine-if-Obama-did-this stories.

Nevertheless, the pushback may be having some effect on the White House. After considerable speculation about when and whether the president would take advantage of the Insurrection Act of 1807, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this morning that he's opposed to its use in response to ongoing civil unrest.

As the Associated Press reported, the Pentagon chief told reporters that active-duty troops should be used in a domestic law-enforcement role "only in the most urgent and dire of situations," adding, "We are not in one of those situations now."

If Esper's comments reflect Team Trump's latest posture, it would suggest the president might be backing off from his radical plans.