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Two defense secretaries split with Trump
Defense Secretary Mark Esper distanced himself from President Donald Trump on Wednesday, telling reporters that he opposed the deployment of active-duty troops to quell the protests taking place across the United States.
Hours later, his predecessor, James Mattis, issued a searing condemnation of President Trump’s leadership and his response to the demonstrations.
Trump — already facing a public health crisis, economic turmoil, and social unrest roiling the country — is now openly feuding with his top military brass, current and former.
The statements from both Esper and Mattis were sparked by President Trump’s threat on Monday to invoke the Insurrection Act and “deploy the United States military” to crack down on demonstrators protesting the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man.
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said in a press briefing, announcing his opposition to Trump’s threat. “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
According to Axios, Esper’s comments caught President Trump and his aides off guard and left him in “precarious standing with the White House.”
At her own briefing later Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not offer much in the way of defending the Defense Secretary: “As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper, and should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future,” she said simply.
Holding office while remaining in a tenuous relationship with President Trump is a position familiar to Mattis, who repeatedly clashed with the president while leading the Pentagon at the outset of his administration.
Mattis resigned in December 2018 over Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, but has mostly declined to speak out about his time in the administration or his opinions on the president since then.
The retired four-star Marine Corps general broke his silence Wednesday with a blistering statement to the Atlantic. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote of his former boss, in a stunning rebuke of a president by one of his former Cabinet secretaries. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Like Esper, Mattis criticized Trump’s threat to unilaterally call on the military to quell protests (“at home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors”) and his administration’s order for teargas to be fired at protesters in Washington, D.C., to clear the way for a presidential photo-op.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis continued. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo-op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Trump falsely claimed in a radio interview with Fox News on Wednesday that police “didn’t use tear gas” on the protesters when clearing Lafayette Square for the photo-op, but the U.S. Park Police has acknowledged their use of “smoke canisters and pepper balls” — which the CDC includes under its definition of compounds that can be referred to as “tear gas.”
At his appearance at St. John’s Church following the teargassing, Trump was flanked by Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both men have since told reporters they did not know they were going to the church when they joined the president on his outing.
Milley also caused waves Wednesday with a memo reminding his top commanders that “every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it,” including “the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.” The reminder was interpreted by some as an implicit response to the use of teargas against protesters near the White House earlier this week.
While Trump has feuded with top officials before, these rifts are likely to be particularly impactful: he has long expressed fondness and admiration for “my generals,” as he calls the military leaders. While he has not responded to Esper or Milley, the president fired back at Mattis in a pair of tweets on Wednesday night, calling him “the world’s most overrated general.”
The events on Wednesday reflected the uncertain situation President Trump finds himself in, as his own Pentagon leaders feel increasingly comfortable rebuking him as he struggles to respond to a trio of crises, five months before an election in which polls show him trailing his Democratic rival.
But they also served as a reminder of his power, and his insistence on loyalty from those around him: within hours, Esper had effectively reversed himself, as the Associated Press reported that active-duty soldiers deployed to Washington, D.C., would remain there after all.
The Pentagon had decided earlier in the day to send the soldiers back to their home bases, but after attending a meeting at the White House — and the tepid statement on his status from the president’s press secretary — Esper changed his mind.
NEW POLLS: Trump’s perilous hold on the presidency was also reflected in a bevy of new election polls released Wednesday.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden now leads Trump by an average of 7.8% nationally, a wider advantage that at any point this year or than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had in polls taken at this time in 2008, 2012, or 2016.
Most recently, Biden’s lead stood at 11% in a national poll conducted by Monmouth. The former vice president’s statewide polling shows a similar picture: a trio of new Fox News polls found him ahead in Wisconsin (by 9%), Arizona (by 4%), and Ohio (by 2%) — all key states won by President Trump in 2016. Another poll, by Quinnipiac, found Trump with a razor-thin lead of 1% in Texas, which he won by 9% four years ago.
As CNN reported last week, Biden is “in one of the best positions for any challenger since scientific polling began” — one reason why Senate Republicans and military leaders might feel increasingly comfortable breaking with him so publicly.
CHARGES IN FLOYD CASE: “Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office on Wednesday upgraded charges against the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck and charged the other three officers at the scene with aiding and abetting murder.”
“The decision came just two days after Ellison took over the prosecution from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and followed more than a week of sometimes-violent protests calling for tougher charges against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who had pinned Floyd to the ground and held him there for nearly nine minutes. Protesters also demanded the arrests of the three other former officers who were present but failed to intervene. All three were booked into the Hennepin County jail on Wednesday.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
RACE TO WATCH: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on Wednesday endorsed congressional candidate Jamaal Bowman, a progressive primary challenger to a fellow member of the New York congressional delegation, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY).
The endorsement only adds to Engel’s troubles ahead of the June 23 primary, as he finds himself at serious risk of ending his 31-year career in Congress. Also this week, two progressive groups have announced plans to spend more than $500,000 backing Bowman, while Engel has been taking heat for an embarrassing hot-mic moment.
Engel, who has faced questions about his presence in the district, could be heard demanding to speak at a news conference in the Bronx on Tuesday, telling the event’s organizer: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
*All times Eastern
President Donald Trump will receive his intelligence briefing at 3 p.m. and signing an executive order on “expediting permitting” at 4:30 p.m.
Vice President Mike Pence has no public events scheduled.
The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. and resume consideration of the nomination of Michael Pack to be Chief Executive Officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The chamber is scheduled to hold a cloture vote on the nomination at 11:40 a.m. and then vote to confirm Pack at 1:30 p.m.
Pack, a conservative filmmaker, is a close ally of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon; he would oversee Voice of America and other U.S. state-run media outlets if confirmed.
The House will meet at 10 a.m. for a brief pro forma session.
The Supreme Court justices will meet for their weekly conference.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden will attend a virtual fundraiser and hold a virtual town hall with young Americans.
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