Trump eyes US military to quell protests despite his own scepticism about it as a police force

'And we're not meant to be a police force – we're meant to be a fighting force,' president said last week of American military personnel in Afghanistan

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Wednesday 03 June 2020 17:34
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Military trucks line Hollywood Boulevard

Donald Trump wants US military troops to act as a muscular force to quell sometimes-violent protests at home, contradicting his own view that post-9/11 conflicts show the Pentagon is an ineffective police department.

The president on Monday night strode into the Rose Garden and denounced "the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country," declaring with few specifics: "We will end it now." He noted he had, on a teleconference earlier in the day, urged local and state officials to deploy their National Guard forces to put down the protests.

What the commander in chief had in mind, in his words, was US military troops inside American cities as an "overwhelming law enforcement presence." And he suggested those troops would remain deployed on domestic streets "until the violence has been quelled."

Foreshadowing a surreal night in the nation's capital that saw military Blackhawk and other helicopters deployed to hover low over Washington, DC, to intimidate and dissuading any form of protests – peaceful or violent – Mr Trump shed his long-held view that the US military is an ineffective police department.

"I am also taking swift and decisive action to protect our great capital, Washington, DC," he said as federal law enforcement officers and DC National Guard troops used tear gas, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, batons and shields to clear the area around Lafayette Park ahead of his walk to a vandalized church.

"What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace," he said of Sunday night protests that turned violent, with looting and fires downtown at shops and St. John's Episcopal Church, to which he later strolled after a melee on H Street NW. "As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property."

As he has since taking office in January 2017, Mr Trump simply set aside what had been a pillar of his "America first" philosophy.

"If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them," he said, describing American forces in exactly opposite terms as he did as a presidential candidate four years ago and during his term.

Rewind the calendar just six days.

The same president stood in the same Rose Garden outside the same White House. He was there to speak about lowering insulin prices for America's seniors. He also took questions from reporters.

"Mr. President, is it your intention to bring American forces home from Afghanistan by Thanksgiving Day? And is the Pentagon drawing up plans to that effect?" one journalist asked.

"We're having very positive [peace] talks. We want to bring our soldiers back home. We want to bring them back home. And we're not only talking about there, we're talking about other countries also," Mr Trump replied. "We bring our soldiers back home. We can always go back if we have to."

Then he made clear he believes American forces should fight America's enemies, not police other countries' streets.

"If we have to go back, we'll go back and we'll go back raging. And there, we'll go back as warriors, fighters," he said. "But right now, we're policing. And we're not meant to be a police force – we're meant to be a fighting force."

'Unlimited power'

A week later, the president had ordered over 1,500 airborne and military police units to be flown to the Washington, DC, area, where they remain on standby should he deem the nightly protests too violent.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on why the president believes US military forces will be more effective as a US police force.

In recent days, however, Mr Trump has spoken in only his typically vague terms about just what he wants military forces to do if he deploys them to stop protests.

"We have our military ready, willing, and able if they ever want to call our military. But we can have troops to the ground very quickly if they ever want our military," he said on Saturday as he departed the White House for a rocket launch in Florida.

"They've got to be tough. They've got to be strong. They've got to be respected, because these people, the Antifa – there's a lot of radical-left, bad people," he added, suggesting he envisions military forces taking on such groups: "And they've got to be taught that you can't do this."

A short time later, he posted this tweet from aboard Air Force One: "Crossing State lines to incite violence is a FEDERAL CRIME! Liberal Governors and Mayors must get MUCH tougher or the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done."

He again suggested any deployed military personnel would be doing more than supporting state and local law enforcement officers, adding: "that includes using the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests."

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'Forcibly and violently'

On Wednesday morning, he shared a photo of a shops in Manhattan boarded up in anticipation of additional looting. "The National Guard is ready!" the president wrote a few hours after tweeting this demand as the protests show no signs of abating: "Get tough police!"

Defence Secretary Mark Esper by midday was left to try assure Americans that deploying active-duty troops would be a "last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations."

Mr Esper's comment was a break from a president who on Monday night made clear he is poised to do just that.

"I am your President of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters," he said sternly. "These are not acts of peaceful protest. These are acts of domestic terror. The destruction of innocent life and the spilling of innocent blood is an offence to humanity and a crime against God."

Mr Trump's instincts and what transpired Monday night in Washington have drawn stiff rebukes from former military commanders.

"It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel – including members of the National Guard – forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church," Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday night in The Atlantic.

"Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he 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," the retired Navy four-star admiral wrote. "There was little good in the stunt."

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