Trump to Troops on the Border: If Migrants Throw Rocks, 'Consider it a Rifle'

Migrants hitch rides on passing trucks, in Niltepec, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018.  (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Migrants hitch rides on passing trucks, in Niltepec, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The commander-in-chief gave troops headed to the U.S.-Mexico border a confusing message on Thursday when he said during a press conference that if migrants throw rocks at them, they should consider it a weapon.

If U.S. military personnel on the border face a violent showing like Mexican police officers saw along the Guatemala-Mexico, President Donald Trump said "we're not going to put up with that."

"[If] they want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back," Trump said during a press conference at the White House. "We're going to consider it -- and I told them, 'consider that a rifle.' When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I say 'consider it a rifle.'"

His comments raise serious questions about rules of engagement the thousands of troops being sent to operate along the U.S. border are supposed to follow, and it doesn't fall in line with what Pentagon officials have outlined so far.

Air Force Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, head of U.S. Northern Command, said this week that "everything that we are doing is in line with and adherence to Posse Comitatus," a congressional act dating back to the 1800s that prohibits the military from participating in domestic law-enforcement activities.

And a Pentagon memo, obtained by the Washington Post, also states that the troops -- who will deploy with their service and non-lethal weapons -- are authorized to use deadly force only when "faced with imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm, and where lesser means have failed or cannot be reasonably employed," the paper reported.

Earlier this week, a second caravan of Central American migrants heading toward the U.S. border on foot clashed violently with Mexican police and immigration officials outside Guatemala. One person was killed and dozens more injured, the LA Times reported, and "many migrants" were taken into custody.

Trump was asked whether he could see the armed active-duty military personnel on the border firing at anyone if a similar situation occurred in the U.S.

"I hope not, I hope not," the president replied. "... But I will tell you this: Anybody throwing stones, rocks like they did to Mexico and the Mexican military and Mexican police, where they badly hurt police and soldiers, we will consider that a firearm because there's not much difference when you get hit in the face with a rock."

Luis Martinez, a reporter with ABC News, said Trump's comments contradict what military leaders have been telling the public about the troops' mission on the border.

"What I heard was a major disconnect," he said on ABC News following the president's press conference. "... Yes, they do have the right of self-defense and yes, some of these personnel will be armed, but their main duty is not to carry out law enforcement along that border. That is the task of [Customs and Border Protection]."

Trump has also contradicted military leaders this week on the number of troops preparing to go to the border, and the tents they will bring, which military leaders say are for border-patrol agents and Trump has implied will be used to house migrants.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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