Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump

Congressional Republicans on Wednesday stood behind Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon chief does not support invoking Insurrection Act The Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen Pentagon moves 1,600 active-duty troops near DC as tensions escalate MORE, who dramatically broke with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says inviting Russia to G7 'a question of common sense' Pentagon chief does not support invoking Insurrection Act Dershowitz: Does President Trump have power to declare martial law? MORE by declaring he opposed deploying U.S. military forces to put down rioting in American cities.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRepublicans turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks GOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters Democrat Christina Hale and Republican Victoria Spartz to face off in House race in Indiana MORE (R-Utah) told reporters in the Capitol that Esper “has the right to express his point of view and the president has his,” while Rep. Bradley ByrneBradley Roberts ByrneDemocrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Zeldin says Congress must help states; Fauci's warning; Dems unveil T bill As the nation turns a corner, time to stop the bleeding MORE (R-Ala.) tweeted, “I agree with Secretary Esper.” 

“At this time, there is absolutely no reason to use the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty U.S. forces,” said Byrne, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “That is a tool that should only be used as an absolute last resort.”

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks Susan Collins criticizes Trump's treatment of protesters as 'painful to watch' Trump's vow to deploy military faces GOP pushback MORE (R-S.D.) described the Pentagon chief’s decision as “the right call” and said the Pentagon should “stay out of the political fray.”

“I think that these tasks ought to be relegated as much as possible to the state and local authorities, the law enforcement and police,” Thune told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday.

“I know there are instances in the past where they’ve had to call up active-duty personnel but I think the goal always is to de-escalate, not escalate. So my view is that’s the right call,” Thune added.

The GOP support for Esper comes as at a pivotal moment for the Defense secretary. He was on shaky ground with the president even before he publicly broke with Trump during a news conference at the Pentagon, declaring that using active-duty military personnel in a law enforcement role should only be done as a “last resort” and that the current civil unrest, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, did not constitute such a situation.

Sources told The Hill and other news outlets his high-profile disagreement with the president Wednesday did not go over well with Trump’s inner circle.

Two days earlier, Trump stood in the Rose Garden and threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy U.S. military troops around the country to quell rioting, looting, arson and violence that have spun off from mostly peaceful protests against police brutality.

"If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” Trump said, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”  

Democratic leaders cried foul, calling them the words of an authoritarian dictator. But many Republicans —  who’ve been reluctant to show any daylight between themselves and Trump, particularly during an election year — also broke with Trump on the Insurrection Act threat. 

“Yeah, I wouldn't be for that. Active military,” Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunGOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal MORE (R-Ind.) told reporters.   

“I do,” he replied, when asked if he disagreed with the president.

However, some Republicans are rooting on Trump to unleash a show of force against the rioters and looters who have destroyed buildings, cars and other property, forcing countless retail businesses across the county to close shop and board their windows.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: Trump's move to use military in US sparks backlash | Defense officials take heat | Air Force head calls Floyd's death 'a national tragedy' Trump stokes backlash with threat to use military against protesters Five things to know about Trump's legal power under the Insurrection Act MORE (R-Ark.) wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. “But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.”  

Despite their support of Esper's position on the Insurrection Act, congressional Democrats took the Defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to task for participating in a photo-op with Trump in front of a church near the White House that rioters had tried to burn down.

Trump administration officials ordered police to clear protesters out of the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church before the visit, and they did so using tear gas and rubber bullets.

“I don’t think it was appropriate for Esper and Milley to be there. My first thought was, ‘Don’t they have China and Russia to worry about? How do peaceful demonstrations fit into the National Security Strategy the Pentagon is always talking about?’ It doesn’t,” Rep. Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenHouse GOP lawmaker breaks with party to back proxy voting House passes massive T coronavirus relief package House adopts historic rules changes to allow remote voting MORE (D-Wash.), who serves on the Armed Services subcommittee overseeing intelligence and emerging threats, told The Hill.

“Their presence gave credence to the potential use of the Insurrection Act when they should have been doing everything possible to counter its use. Instead, their presence added to the president’s narrative at a critical time.”

Majority Whip Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnKlobuchar on defense as Floyd death puts spotlight on record Khanna: Coronavirus has 'accelerated' the need for rural broadband Lifting our voices — and votes MORE (D-S.C.) stopped just short of calling for Esper to resign, saying it's not his place to do so. But, he quickly added that Esper should take stock of his actions and see if it “squares with what their understanding of what this country is all about."

"I don't believe that if he were to take stock of that, he would agree that he ought to continue in office, if that's what he cannot square,” Clyburn said during a Washington Post Live event Wednesday.

With the backing of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump congratulates Steve King challenger on GOP primary win The Hill's Morning Report - Protesters' defiance met with calls to listen Calls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress MORE (D-Calif.), House Armed Services Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Trump's move to use military in US sparks backlash | Defense officials take heat | Air Force head calls Floyd's death 'a national tragedy' Trump stokes backlash with threat to use military against protesters Pentagon: Esper, Milley 'not aware' of Trump's church photo-op ahead of time MORE (D-Wash.) has demanded that both Esper and Milley testify before his committee about Trump’s threats to deploy U.S. military on American soil.  

“I have serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protestors,” Smith said in a statement. “The role of the U.S. military in domestic U.S. law enforcement is limited by law. It must not be used in violation of those limits and I see little evidence that President Trump understands this fundamental premise.” 

Mike Lillis and Alexander Bolton contributed.

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