Peacekeeping Problem: Trump Turns the National Guard Into a Political Tool


Peacekeeping Problem: Trump Turns the National Guard Into a Political Tool

In a stunning and unexpected show of force, National Guard troops cleared Lafayette Square by attacking peaceful protestors with a chemical spray, “flash bangs,” and rubber bullets.


One month after the events of June 1, when Black Lives Matter protesters faced off against National Guard soldiers in Washington, DC, the reverberations of the near-catastrophic confrontation continue to reverberate through the Pentagon. While the June 1 incident is a fading memory for most Americans, the events of that Monday have undermined the standing of both Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Chairman Mark Milley not only with President Donald Trump but also with the nation’s most senior military leaders—and perhaps fatally. “Esper is done,” a senior military officer told me recently. “It’s only a matter of time.” The same seems true for Milley. “It would be unusual, but he could be dumped,” this same officer said. “It’s not out of the question.” Worse yet, while both Esper and Milley have gingerly walked back their June 1 missteps (Esper by disavowing his admonition that governors should “dominate the battlespace,” Milley by apologizing for accompanying Trump in his walk to St. John’s Church), Pentagon officials say that Esper and Milley attempted to “offload” their responsibility for seeding the June 1 incident by maneuvering to place the blame for any confrontation on the National Guard.

The following narrative is based on a series of interviews with Defense Department officials, senior retired military officers and civilians overseeing the early June National Guard deployments. It begins with the events of June 1—when, as one senior Pentagon civilian recounts, “a sense of crisis gripped senior U.S. military officers at the Pentagon,” when Donald Trump demanded that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and J.C.S. Chairman Mark Milley deploy ten thousand troops to quell the protests resulting from the police killing of George Floyd. Trump’s demand, issued during a contentious White House meeting, was dismissed by Milley. “I’m not doing that,” he responded. “That’s for law enforcement.” Esper backed Milley, but he was also anxious to appease the president. So he suggested a middle ground: the military would preposition troops of the 82nd Airborne Division at nearby Fort Belvoir, where they would be available should the DC protests turn violent. Trump gave his approval and units of the 82nd began arriving soon thereafter: an infantry battalion from the 82nd Divisions Immediate Response Force, the 16th Military Police Brigade headquarters based at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Drum, New York’s 91st Military Police Battalion.


But Trump wanted more. During a conference call with state governors that followed his confrontation with Milley, the president urged them to assign National Guard units to Washington. “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you,” Trump said. “You are going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.” Milley remained silent but Esper agreed: “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace,” he told the governors, “the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal.” The military scrambled to meet the directive, with Esper cajoling governors to agree to the National Guard deployments. After hours spent on the telephone, Esper accepted soldiers from eleven jurisdictions—all except one of them headed by Republican governors. The governors of five other states, all with Democratic governors, refused. The final contingent included troops from Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Indiana and Utah. Eventually, the streets of DC were filled with nearly five thousand National Guard soldiers, including twelve hundred from Washington, DC. 

For active duty and retired senior military officers monitoring these moves and counter-moves, the Esper-Milley strategy for dealing with Trump was fraught with obvious dangers. “The idea was to push the National Guard out front, to get them to walk point,” a senior Pentagon official told me. “The last thing anyone wanted was the 82nd Airborne in the streets of Washington, DC.” A senior retired military officer is even more blunt. Esper and Milley’s goal was not to take responsibility for Trump’s heavy-handed response but to evade it. “Esper and Milley calculated that, if something went wrong, they could put the responsibility on the Guard,” this officer told me. “The National Guard would walk point and, if something went wrong, they could take the fall.”

But the Esper-Milley decision to make the National Guard “walk point” nearly backfired. The appearance of National Guard soldiers nose-to-nose with protesters in front of the White House on the night of June 1 was chilling—particularly since senior military officers concede that for most Americans an active duty soldier and a National Guardsman are indistinguishable. Then, too, the Esper-Milley strategy gambled that while the National Guard would play a secondary role to local law enforcement forces, the visual of having troops confront protesters would appeal to the president. “Esper took a chance,” a senior Pentagon official told me several days after the June 1 event. “The National Guard is overused and under-trained, which means they’re unpredictable. All it would take would be one guy to make a mistake. Everyone was holding their breath.”

“This was a different kind of crisis, and there were aspects of it that were really quite terrifying,” Risa Brooks, an expert on civil-military relations at Marquette University and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told me. “The military was being put in a situation to confront the protesters. It would be the U.S. military versus the American people. We haven’t seen that before, and I haven’t seen that before. We were on the precipice. It kept me awake.”

The flashpoint came that same Monday night, after Trump— accompanied by Esper, Milley, Attorney General William Barr and a host of others—marched from the White House to St. John’s Church, where Trump posed awkwardly holding a Bible. To clear the way for the president, law enforcement officers, backed by National Guard troops, cleared Lafayette Square using a chemical spray, “flash bangs” and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters. The stunning, and unexpected, show of force was orchestrated by Attorney General William Barr, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Esper, DC National Guard Maj. Gen. William Walker and a host of law enforcement officials who, in the wake of the St. John’s photo op, directed operations from a nearby Central Command Center. Later that night, a DC National Guard Lakota medevac helicopter hovered over demonstrators, sending them scrambling. The use of the helicopter was to show a “persistent presence”—a threat—as a Pentagon official later described it.

Over the days that followed the June 1 crisis, the Trump administration was the target of unusually harsh and public criticisms from respected senior retired military officers, including former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen (on June 2), former Secretary of Defense Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis (on June 3), retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen (on that same day), and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey—on June 4. The criticisms are still reverberating through the military community, where senior officers say the Esper-Milley strategy has soured their relationship with senior National Guard officers and the uniformed military. “The next time Esper makes a call to the governors you have to wonder whether they'll pick up the phone,” a senior Pentagon official says. While Esper (“Yesper” to his detractors) has come in for particularly intense public scrutiny, Milley is viewed as mortally wounded by even his closest military supporters and viewed as, in the words of a senior retired officer with whom I spoke, “an Icarus-like figure who is paying the price for ingratiating himself with Trump.”

Not surprisingly, the Esper-Milley strategy of placing the onus for the events of June 1 has been successful, at least officially, with Esper the mastermind behind an official “after-action review” of the incident. The review, ordered by Esper within days of the June 1 incident, will evaluate how well the National Guard worked with “local and federal law enforcement across the country during the last two weeks.” In announcing the review, Esper was careful to praise the National Guard for performing “professionally and capably in support of law enforcement in cities across the United States.” But few in the Pentagon are buying it. “This is as obvious an attempt to put the blame elsewhere as I’ve ever seen,” a senior Pentagon consultant told me in disgust, “but I suppose in one sense it makes sense. After all, Esper isn’t going to call for a review of himself.” Which is to say that, having directed the National Guard to “act aggressively” to keep Trump from calling the 82nd Airborne into the streets of Washington, Esper and Milley will find a way to blame the National Guard for doing just that. That, more pointedly, the upper echelons of the Pentagon, to include Esper, Milley and most especially Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, will offload their own responsibility for the controversy surrounding the events of June 1 by disciplining select National Guard officers for a series of missteps that punctuated their DC deployments—including the relief of the helicopter pilots who used a medevac helicopter to intimidate protesters on the night of June 1. McCarthy, who ordered the helicopter to buzz the protesters, will lead the review, Esper announced.