Top Pentagon Leaders Summoned to Testify on Military's Response to Protests

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President Trump walks to St. John's Church across Lafayette Park in Washington.
President Trump walks from the White House to visit St. John's Church across Lafayette Park Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Defense officials will testify on Capitol Hill next week as criticism mounts over their presence near the White House on Monday, when police and National Guard members used tear gas on peaceful protesters to clear the way for the president to take a photo at a nearby church.

Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley have been called to testify before the committee next week.

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"I have serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protesters, and I remain gravely concerned about President Trump's seemingly autocratic rule and how it affects the judgment of our military leadership," Smith, D-Washington, said Tuesday.

Esper and Milley, who wore his camouflage utility uniform, have been criticized for appearing in photos with the president at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House on Monday. The photo op came shortly after protesters were preemptively hit with flash-bang explosives and tear gas ahead of a 7 p.m. curfew in Washington, D.C.

The tactics were used to clear a path before Trump made his way to the church, where he posed with a Bible. Trump had earlier made comments from the White House on national protests and unrest following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died last week while a white police officer kneeled on his neck. He also participated in a call with state governors in which he criticized states’ “weak” response to property destruction and violence during the protests.

Esper, who was also on the call, has come under fire for saying that the Pentagon would support efforts to “dominate the battlespace.”

Retired Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey tweeted Monday night, "America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy."

Several Democratic lawmakers also spoke out.

"To Secretary Esper: My state is not a 'battlespace,'" Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who served on the defense and intelligence communities under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said she's concerned the president and senior Pentagon leaders are using the military to further political objectives.

"Tonight, we saw the images of military police clearing an unarmed, peaceful protest with tear gas so that the President, Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in uniform, could walk across a park for a photo op," Slotkin said Monday. "I worked with General Milley at the Pentagon, and I hope he's thinking seriously about the moral and ethical issues surrounding his role in the coming days."

Defense officials, who spoke to reporters Tuesday on the condition of anonymity, told reporters that "nothing should be read into" Esper's use of the word "battlespace" to describe cities with protests.

"I think all of you are very well aware that the Department of Defense often communicates in a parlance unique to the profession of arms," the official said. "You have a SecDef [who was] in uniform for more than 20 years. He was using the terms that we have."

The word "battlespace" was simply meant to "discuss generally the area we are operating," the official added.

Defense officials also said Esper and Milley did not plan to be involved in Trump's photo session. They were at the White House for a meeting when the president "indicated an interest in viewing the troops that were outside, and the secretary and the chairman went with him to do so," one official said.

They were then redirected, the official added.

Smith, in his announcement that Esper and Milley would be called to testify on Capitol Hill, said the military’s response to the protests must remain lawful. More than 18,000 National Guard troops are now activated to support law enforcement in protests, and some active-duty units are also on standby.

"I remain gravely concerned about President Trump's seemingly autocratic rule and how it affects the judgment of our military leadership," Smith said. "... The fate of our democracy depends on how we navigate this time of crisis."

-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

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

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