By Tara Copp and Michael Wilner
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has ordered the creation of a military “central command center” to deploy federal assets to local governments struggling to respond to a surge of protests and riots over the death of George Floyd in police custody, the White House said Monday.
The operation will be led by Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, alongside Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
“There will be a central command center in conjunction with the state and local governments that will include Gen. Milley, Secretary Esper and AG Barr,” she told reporters at a briefing.
Based on McEnany’s remarks, it was not immediately clear whether National Guard units across the country would be put under federal control — an unprecedented move, one longtime defense analyst said — or whether the operation would be more limited, such as just to Washington, D.C., where there is no governor and control of forces is delegated to the secretary of the Army.
Almost all National Guard members that have been activated in response to the protests are under the control of their state governors.
A series of military trucks arrived near the White House late Monday afternoon with members of the D.C. National Guard.
A senior defense official told McClatchy that 250 members of a military police unit from Fort Bragg, N.C., were also arriving in D.C., but so far had not been given a specific mission.
“We have, throughout our history, used the active duty military” to stop rioting, said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. He cited the use of active duty military to quell rioting after the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991, and the Detroit riots in 1967.
But putting the whole National Guard under federal control would be unprecedented, Korb said, noting that Milley has no authority to command the National Guard troops.
Neither the Department of Defense nor the National Guard was able to immediately comment. White House officials declined to clarify McEnany’s remarks.
In a recording of a call between Trump and governors Monday that was obtained by The Washington Post, Esper called the protests on U.S. soil a “battlespace,” raising questions as to whether U.S. forces would be put under federal control to use force against U.S. citizens.
“At my urging, I agree, we need to dominate the battlespace,” Esper told the governors. “I stand ready, the chairman stands ready, the head of the National Guard stands ready to help you in terms of helping mobilize the Guard and doing what they need to do,” he said.
A senior defense official told McClatchy on the condition of not being identified that Esper’s use of the word should not be taken out of context, and what Esper was doing was advising the governors they had to add more law enforcement.
“The use of ‘battlespace’ — it’s just a phrase we use — the space in which we are operating,” the senior defense official said. “It does not mean the militarization of this at all.”
Cities across the country braced for another night of protests Monday after a weekend of both peaceful and violent demonstrations gripped the nation over Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. In Washington, cars were burned, stores were looted and historic landmarks were defaced within sight of the president’s residence.
Inside the White House, only essential personnel reported to work, and those who showed in person planned to leave before dark after protests raged around the presidential compound late into the night on Sunday.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a citywide curfew for 7 p.m. But in his call with governors, Trump said that “we are going to clamp down very, very strong” in the nation’s capital, dismissing Bowser’s efforts to direct local police.
“If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re going to walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington, in D.C., we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before. We’re going to have total domination.”
“It’s a movement that, if you don’t put it down, it’ll get worse and worse,” Trump said.
States across the country experiencing mass protests since last week have called in National Guard units to help assist their largest cities. Trump urged governors to act more aggressively to control their streets with law enforcement, and criticized them for not using the Guardsmen in greater numbers.
As of Monday more than 17,000 National Guard members had been activated in 23 states and the District of Columbia in response to the protests. Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, is also a member of the Joint Staff.
“The secretary of defense is here. We’re strongly looking for arrests. We do have to get much tougher. You’re going to get overridden,” Trump said in the call. “We have all the men and women that you need, but people aren’t calling them up. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you — you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
McEnany said police lines are being “overwhelmed,” causing local law enforcement to “go on the defense.”
“General Milley has really been on point in talking about the National Guard, the effectiveness, and making sure that they’re utilized to great effect across the country,” McEnany said of the Joint Chiefs chairman.
The White House spokeswoman said that Trump has “many” tools available to him, including the Insurrection Act, a law last invoked during the 1992 protests around the beating of King. But he is currently focused on the National Guard and encouraging further state deployments. She said that the president does not have a specific number in mind of Guardsmen he would like to see on the streets, but that it should be “far more” than the 17,000 that have been called up so far.
The appropriate number will vary by state, McEnany said, adding, “it is their responsibility to police their streets.”
On Sunday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said that the administration did not intend on federalizing the National Guard.
“We’re not going to federalize the guard at this time, but if necessary, we have further military assets that can be deployed, military police units and that sort of thing that can be deployed,” O’Brien said. “If the governors and the mayors need it, and they can’t get control of the situation, we’re there as a reserve.”
(Francesca Chambers contributed to this story.)
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