In a remarkable shift, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Wednesday that he opposes using active-duty troops to put down the protests in American cities—in other words, he opposes President Donald Trump’s threat to do just that.
His statement is significant for two reasons. First, Esper would be the one to carry out such orders under the Insurrection Act of 1807, which Trump has threatened to invoke. Second, since becoming defense secretary almost a year ago, Esper, like many of his fellow Cabinet members, has kowtowed to Trump like a lap dog. Wednesday’s remarks might signal a bigger change, set off perhaps by his embarrassment at being used by Trump, for blatantly political purposes, at the photo-op in front of St. John’s Church on Monday.
Esper is not the only one who’s beginning to rebel at Trump’s misuse of the military. Senior military officers are turning against him as well. So far, this is a tentative, uncoordinated tilt—officers are trained, from the time they’re cadets, to stay out of politics and to obey lawful orders from civilian authority—but there is growing concern about Trump’s use of the military for his own partisan purposes and, with it, a growing recognition of the need to speak out.
The first public outburst came on Tuesday, from retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wrote in the Atlantic, “I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.”
He was referring to Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church—after police and National Guard cleared the way by firing tear gas at peaceful protesters in nearby Lafayette Park—and to his call-up of active-duty troops for more attacks. With these acts, Mullen wrote, Trump “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.”
Mullen wrote that he was confident that the men and women in uniform “will obey lawful orders. But,” he added, “I am less confident in the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.” He also criticized Esper, without mentioning his name, who had spoken a few days earlier of the need to dominate the “battle space” in the fight against protesters. American cities, Mullen replied, “are not ‘battle spaces’ to be dominated, and must never become so.”
The admiral’s words followed similar commentary, mainly on Twitter, from retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, another former JCS chairman; retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA; and retired Gen. Tony Thomas, former head of Special Operations Command.
Active-duty officers are also beginning to speak out. In a memo to his fellow service leaders, obtained by Air Force Times, Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, denounced the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. He noted that the Air Force is “not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice,” and urged them, “as leaders and as airmen,” to “confront it head on.” The memo wasn’t an explicit critique of Trump’s approach to the demonstrations, but it was a clear stab at dissociation from the president’s approach.
Goldfein wrote his memo after Kaleth Wright, chief master sergeant of the Air Force, the top enlisted leader of the service, who is black, posted a statement—after receiving Goldfein’s blessing to do so—identifying himself with Floyd and other victims of police brutality. Noting that the Air Force is wrestling with “its own demons” on racism, urging his fellow airmen “to do what you think is right for the country, for your community … for every Black man in this country who could end up like George Floyd.”
Clearer still was a memo by Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, not only calling for “introspection, reflection and discussion” about racial injustice, but also stating, outright, “Violence against our fellow Americans has no place in our work toward positive change” and “we have sworn an oath to defend” the right to peaceful protest.
A professor at the academy, who gave me a copy of the memo, wrote in an email, “Silveria and the rest of military leaders are pissed because we are one of the most well integrated institutions” and “also the only non politicized institution, and are we going to throw our military—black, Hispanic, white, etc., soldiers—in full battle to beat up American citizens??”
Esper—a former West Point cadet, Army infantry officer, and aerospace executive—may have been chastened not just by these statements but also by a letter from James Miller, a former undersecretary of defense, who on Tuesday resigned in protest as a leader of the Defense Science Board since 2014. In his resignation letter, which Miller sent to the Washington Post for publication, he wrote that, by accompanying Trump to St. John’s Church after nearby peaceful protesters were dispersed by tear gas, Esper had violated his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution.” Miller continued, “Anyone who takes the oath of office must decide where he or she will draw the line. I must now ask: If last night’s blatant violations [at the church] do not cross the line for you, what will?… I hope this letter of resignation will encourage you to again contemplate the obligations you understood … as well as your obligations to the men and women in our military and other Americans whose lives may be at stake.”
Maybe Miller’s letter prompted Esper to do just that. At his press briefing on Wednesday, Esper also backpedaled on his use of the phrase battle space, saying, “It’s part of our military lexicon that I grew up with. … It’s not a phrase focused on people. In retrospect, I would have used different wording.”
Earlier, in an interview with NBC News, Esper tried to dissociate himself from the St. John’s incident as well, saying that, after a meeting in the White House, he followed Trump and others toward Lafayette Park, adjacent to the church, thinking that he would be inspecting the National Guard troops who had been deployed there. “I didn’t know where I was going,” he said, a comment that provoked mirth and ridicule on social media—which may also have prompted Esper to explain himself and cut ties with administration policy more firmly.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—who also posed at the St. John’s photo-op, and who strutted around Washington on Monday night, in full battle dress, as if he were a wartime commander inspecting his troops before they charged into combat—has not yet said anything about his behavior or the president’s policies.* Several officers have raised their eyebrows at Milley’s antics, especially since, as JCS chairman, he plays no formal role in military operations. Hayden tweeted that he was particularly “appalled” by Milley’s battle attire.
The wait is now on for other officers to speak out—and, perhaps, for active-duty officers, who are limited in what they can publicly say, to resign. In February 2017, retired Adm. William McRaven, former head of Joint Special Operations Command, the officer who planned the raid on Osama bin Laden, denounced Trump as the “greatest threat to democracy” he’d ever seen. This was in the context of Trump’s denunciation of the press as an “enemy of the people.” Other officers nodded quietly behind the scenes, but few joined him publicly. Trump’s presidency, after all, was barely a month old.
In December 2018, James Mattis, a retired four-star general, wrote a blistering letter to Trump, resigning in protest as his secretary of defense, mainly over the president’s dissing of allies. Several months later, Mattis wrote a memoir that barely mentioned Trump. While promoting the book, he told interviewers that he was constrained to speak out against a sitting president, but he also told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic that his period of silence was “not eternal—it’s not going to be forever.”
A question, then, for Mattis and many other quietly critical men and women in (or just recently out of) uniform, paraphrasing Jim Miller’s letter to Mark Esper: If Trump’s recent behavior doesn’t cross the line for you, what will?
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Correction, June 3, 2020: This article originally misstated when Gen. Mark Milley walked around D.C. in full battle dress. It was Monday night, not Sunday night. It also referred to Michael Hayden as a lieutenant general. He retired as a full general.