President Donald Trump stood in the Rose Garden last week and announced that he was “dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” in response to violence in Washington, D.C., amid protests against racial injustice.
Later that day, June 1, police and National Guard troops employed heavy-handed tactics to clear a path for a president who wanted a public spectacle to portray an image of strength. His walk to a nearby church to display a Bible, flanked by his top military leaders, left the public with what will undoubtedly become one of the most bizarre and troubling images in a presidency filled with head-scratching moments.
What many Americans did not see was that behind the scenes, active-duty units from the 82nd Airborne Division and elsewhere — soldiers who are prepared to confront external enemies at a moment’s notice — had been deployed to staging areas on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., apparently part of Trump's plan to “dominate the battle space,” to use Defense Secretary Mark Esper's unfortunate phrase.
An 'inflection point' for America
The president’s instinct and willingness to resort to military force to respond to massive, predominantly peaceful and lawful protests — protests triggered by a grotesque demonstration of police criminality reflective of pervasive racial disparities in our criminal justice system — has been painfully obvious over the past week. His actions drove some of the most respected military veterans in our nation to break their silence and condemn the president’s judgment, indifference to our shared constitutional values, and failure of leadership.
As a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, explained, he spoke out because these events reflect an “inflection point" for our nation.
Sadly, this rare moment in American history warns us that the power of the presidency is susceptible to abuse that jeopardizes the liberty and rights of Americans by improper use of a “standing army.” Perhaps more important, it is also a crucial reminder of the vulnerability of the structural bulwarks against such abuse established by the Constitution and subordinate laws and policies. They can easily be bypassed by a president dismissive of these constraints and enabled by advisers who prioritize loyalty to his interests over fidelity to the fundamental principles of our republic.
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It is not only former military leaders who recognize this danger. Esper’s public disagreement with the president’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act — a rarely used law that allows deployment of U.S. military personnel to bolster civilian law enforcement in situations of genuine extremis — was an unusual, even remarkable rebuke of the president’s deeply flawed instincts.
An army of surrogate Trump critics
Equally remarkable has been the crescendo of condemnation by numerous retired senior military leaders who, like Mullen, have felt compelled to suspend their normal reticence. Former Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Trump chief of staff John Kelly and George W. Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell, as retired generals, in our view are acting as surrogates for current military leaders, who risk sanction for criticizing their commander in chief.
Such forceful condemnation of the president’s willingness to unjustifiably turn the U.S. military against our own citizens reflects the significance of this moment. The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, issued an extraordinary message June 2 to every member of the U.S. armed forces, reminding them of their ultimate duty to respect the Constitution, its values and the dignity of all citizens. He went further on Thursday and apologized for his walk with Trump to St. John’s Church. “I should not have been there,” he told National Defense University graduates.
Perhaps Trump's order Sunday to withdraw the active-duty units deployed to Washington indicates that senior military officers were having some positive influence behind the scenes. Perhaps we will hear more about this if Esper and Milley agree to testify to Congress, as the House has been trying to arrange this week.
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But the withdrawal cannot nullify the damage already done to our democracy by a president who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the delicate balance between protection of public order, the right of the people to peacefully protest and the danger inherent in turning the military against our own citizens. Instead, all Americans must understand how easily our bulwarks against abuse of power can be bypassed, and how extreme such an abuse must become before subordinate military commanders will be compelled to refuse orders flowing from that abuse.
We have indeed reached a national inflection point, the point where we must all remember Benjamin Franklin’s warning: "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Rachel E. VanLandingham, a professor of law at Southwestern Law School, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former military attorney. Geoffrey S. Corn, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former military attorney and intelligence officer, is the Vinson & Elkins Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law Houston and a Distinguished Fellow for the Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy of the Jewish Institute for National Security in America. Follow them on Twitter: @rachelv12, @cornjag1
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump mobilizes force in Floyd protests, top veterans finally revolt