Pentagon chief Esper reverses decision to send some troops home from D.C. amid protests

Esper's 180-degree policy change came after he visited the White House on Wednesday.
Image: Mark Esper
Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a press briefing about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, on May 15, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP

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By Courtney Kube and Rich Schapiro

Defense Secretary Mark Esper reversed his decision to send home some active duty troops deployed to Washington, D.C., after a meeting at the White House Wednesday amid the ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd.

Esper's decision is a significant reversal from where he stood Tuesday night, when he broke from President Donald Trump and told NBC News in an exclusive interview that he did not support using the military to quell protests triggered by the death of George Floyd.

“I don’t think they need to be used,” Esper said Tuesday night. “We have more than enough National Guard capacity out there.”

It is unclear if Esper met with Trump during his visit at the White House Wednesday.

At a press briefing Wednesday morning, Esper appeared to still support sending some troops back home.

“I say this not only as Secretary of Defense but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard,” Esper said.

“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 situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

Trump on Monday raised the specter of invoking the 1807 law in a Rose Garden address on Monday. Speaking at the same time as federal officers used force to clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House, Trump threatened to use the military to stamp out the continuing unrest across the country.

“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,” Trump said.

In his Wednesday remarks, Esper said he believes the National Guard is “best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations in support of local enforcement.”

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany responded a few hours later.

"The Insurrection Act is a tool available," she said. "The president has the sole authority. If he chooses to use it, he will do it."

Earlier Wednesday, two White House officials told NBC News that President Trump, for now, appears to be backing off his threat to invoke the law to give him authority to deploy troops to U.S. states to quash the protests.

The death of Floyd, whose final moments under the knee of a Minnesota police officer were captured on camera, set off days-long protests across the country, some of them violent.

In a memo to Defense Department personnel dated Tuesday, Esper stressed the importance of staying away from politics. "As I reminded you in February, I ask that you remember at all times our commitment as a department and as public servants to stay apolitical in these turbulent days," reads the memo obtained by NBC News.

Geoff Bennett and Peter Alexander contributed.