'Unacceptable': Dems slam Pentagon officials Esper and Milley for not testifying about Floyd protests

Savannah Behrmann, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee called it "unacceptable" that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley have reportedly refused to testify on the military’s role in the protests over the death of George Floyd.

Armed Services Chair Adam Smith, D-Wash., requested Esper and Milley testify next week after President Donald Trump threatened to quell protests by deploying active-duty troops.

"Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley must testify on-the-record before the committee. The House Armed Services Committee made the request and it has been denied. That is simply unacceptable," said the committee's Democrats in a statement. "It is the constitutional duty of the House Armed Services Committee to perform rigorous oversight, just as it is the constitutional duty of the Administration to be accountable to the American people." 

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However, Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told USA TODAY, “Secretary of Defense Esper has not 'refused' to testify" and that "The DOD legislative affairs team remains in discussion with the HASC on this request."

"In the meantime, DOD has committed to provide Army Secretary McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff GEN McConville, and DC National Guard Commanding General MG Walker to brief the committee next week on the presence of the National Guard in Washington, D.C. this past week.”

Protests have taken hold in cities across the country after the death of Floyd, a black man who suffocated last week after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee.

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After some unruly demonstrations, Trump called  to "mobilize" federal resources to "stop the rioting and looting." He said the goal was to "dominate the streets."

Trump has bemoaned governors' "weak" response to the unrest, and said Monday in the Rose Garden that he would deploy federal forces where local authorities were not able to stop violent protests by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act.

The Insurrection Act is an 1807 law that allows the president to dispatch the military or federalize the National Guard in states that are unable to put down an insurrection or are defying federal law. The act has been invoked in the past to confront the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction and to enforce desegregation in the South. President George H.W. Bush used it in 1992 to help California's governor respond to riots in Los Angeles. 

A pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.

"Apparently, the Trump administration believes they have no obligation to explain their actions to Congress or respect our constitutional system of checks and balances," the lawmakers said in their statement.

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The Democrats on the committee also demanded written answers to questions about the Pentagon's potential plans to use active-duty forces by Monday, and called for Esper and Milley to testify “shortly thereafter.”

In addition to Esper and Milley's refusal, an informal briefing originally scheduled for Friday with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was canceled. A spokesperson for the secretary of the army told USA TODAY that it has been rescheduled for Monday, saying, "The secretary wanted leadership to focus on maintaining peaceful demonstrations throughout the weekend."

The committee responded that the briefing was crucial before a weekend of protests. 

"This briefing to Members of Congress was vitally important to discuss the Department’s plan to ensure the safety of Americans exercising their right to protest and service members working to keep the peace," the lawmakers said.

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The committee also expressed concern over authorities forcefully clearing peaceful protesters in front of the White House on Monday, writing they remain "unconvinced that this fundamental premise is fully understood by the Administration in light of the events in Lafayette Square."

Critics say the move to clear Lafayette Park, made before the city's curfew, resulted in lawful protesters being dispersed with rubber bullets, gas, and chemical agents so the president could take part in a "photo op" at St. John's Church and pose for photos with senior aides. 

Lawmakers have been critical of Esper and Milley for accompanying Trump to St. John's.

"At a time when our nation is hurting the President continues to forgo any effort to calm tensions, as we had all hoped he would. Instead he used force to remove peaceful protesters to stage a photo opportunity. Instead of taking a moment of silence in front of the historic St Johns' Episcopal Church to pray for the lives lost he gathered his cronies to take a picture. Instead of doing the right thing, he once again did the absolute wrong thing," Smith added in a statement.

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On Wednesday, Esper said he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act and using the U.S. military to quiet domestic unrest, in a break with Trump.

As of this week, officials in 31 states had activated 30,000 National Guard members to assist state and local law enforcement in support of civil unrest operations across the country in the aftermath of Floyd's death.

Contributing: William Cummings, Kevin Johnson, Kristine Phillips

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd protests: Dems slam Esper, Milley about not testifying