Multiple Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling on Pentagon and law enforcement officials to testify on how the U.S. military may end up involved in a response to demonstrations protesting police brutality against Black Americans that are taking place around the nation.
House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) announced June 2 that he plans to have Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley before the committee next week to explain what the U.S. military has or may be tasked to do as protestors take to the street after the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, while in police custody in Minneapolis.
Smith told reporters in a Tuesday teleconference that President Donald Trump’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 – which would authorize active duty troops to participate in domestic law enforcement – “runs the risk of an extreme escalation in violence and of a hugely disruptive practice.”
“The biggest concern we have is how the U.S. military is going to be used,” he said. As of Tuesday morning, more than 20,400 U.S. National Guard members have been activated in 28 states as well as in Washington, D.C. in response to state and local lawmakers’ requests for aid in quelling protests. Additionally, U.S. Customers and Border Protection has deployed more than 350 law enforcement personnel in the National Capital Region to support law enforcement efforts against the protests.
The hearing date has not yet been scheduled as of Defense Daily’s deadline Tuesday. Smith’s counterpart on the HASC Republicans side, Ranking Member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), issued a statement Tuesday that a hearing with the two senior defense leaders would be “appropriate” should Trump actually invoke the Insurrection Act. In the meantime, “it would be difficult, in this situation, for the Committee to hold hearings about decisions the President has not made,” he said.
Thornberry expressed concern over the additional stress imposed on the U.S. military over the past three months, to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and manage new Pentagon contracts via the Defense Production Act, and as National Guard units deploy to states where lawmakers have requested aid.
“If we are going to hear from Secretary Esper and General Milley, it needs to be a comprehensive look at how our military is coping with all of the demands placed on it, and how Congress can meet the needs of our men and women in uniform,” Thornberry said. “I am concerned that in the current environment, it would be all too easy to put our men and women in uniform in the middle of a domestic political and cultural crisis.
“Discussions regarding the Insurrection Act could easily make them political pawns,” he continued. “The respect, trust, and support our troops have earned from their fellow citizens is the foundation of their strength and we must be careful not to erode that strength.”
Also on Tuesday, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) sent a letter to the Secret Service Director to request an immediate briefing on the role, if any, of service personnel in the teargassing of protestors Monday evening at Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. Law enforcement on scene deployed tear gas, clearing a path for Trump to walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church, outside of which he had his picture taken while holding a Bible.
“I understand that Secret Service employees have had to make difficult decisions in responding to acts of violence that have interrupted the peaceful demonstrations in Washington, D.C,” Thompson said. “However, … It is shameful that the President used the power of the federal government to attack Americans exercising their Constitutional right to protest just so he could stage a photo opportunity.”
In the upper chamber, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Tuesday announced plans to introduce an amendment to the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) “to prevent the use of military force against American citizens exercising their first Amendment rights.”
“We can provide that no funding can be used by the DoD to marshal force against protesters or American citizens. We essentially can defund activities like that, and if you do, they don’t happen,” Kaine said in a video announcement. Kaine is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is scheduled to mark up their version of the FY ’21 NDAA June 8-10.
Speaking from Capitol Hill Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that “there may be a role” for Congress to play in response to the protests against police brutality. “We’ll be talking to our colleagues about what, if anything, is appropriate for us to do in the wake of what’s going on,” he said on the Senate floor. Shortly thereafter, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced his caucus would form a task force led by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to develop a “strong, bold legislative package very soon” that would tackle law enforcement reform.