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Secretary of Defense Esper Addresses Reporters Regarding Civil Unrest

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Well, good morning, everyone.

Over the past couple days there's been a fair share of reporting, some good, some bad, about what is transpiring -- transpiring in our great nation and the role of the Department of Defense and its leaders. I want to take a few minutes to address these issues in person to make clear the facts and offer my views.

First, let me say up front, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime. The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder. It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times.

With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the department.

Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it. I've always been proud to be a member of an institution – the United States military – that embraces diversity and inclusion and prohibits hate and discrimination in all forms.

More often than not, we have led on these issues. And while we still have much to do on this front, leaders across DOD and the services take this responsibility seriously, and we are determined to make a difference.

Every member of this department has sworn an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. I've taken this oath many times, beginning at the age of 18, when I entered West Point. The rights that are embedded in this great document begin with the First Amendment, which guarantees the five freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly and the right to petition the government.

The United States military is sworn to defend these and all other rights, and we encourage Americans at all times to exercise them peacefully. It is these rights and freedoms that make our country so special, and it is these rights and freedoms that American service members are willing to fight and die for.

At times, however, the United States military is asked, in support of governors and law enforcement, to help maintain law and order so that other Americans can exercise their rights, free from violence against themselves or their property. That is what thousands of Guardsmen are doing today in cities across America. It is not something we seek to do, but it is our duty and we do it with the utmost skill and professionalism.

I was reminded of that Monday as I visited our National Guardsmen who were on duty, Monday night, protecting our most hallowed grounds and monuments. I am very proud of the men and women of the National Guard who are out on the streets today performing this important task, and, in many ways, at the risk of their own welfare.

I've always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations, in support of local law enforcement. I say this not only as secretary of defense, but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard.

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

Last night, a story came out based on a background interview I did earlier in the day. It focused on the events last Monday evening in Lafayette Park, and I found it to be inaccurate in parts. So I want to state very clearly, for all to hear, my account of what happened that Monday afternoon.

I did know that, following the president's remarks on Monday evening, that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park, and at St. John's Episcopal Church. What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going, when we arrived at the church, and what the plans were once we got there.

It was also my aim -- and General Milley's -- to meet with and thank the members of the National Guard who were on duty that evening in the park. It is something the president likes to do as well. The path we took to and from the church didn't afford us that opportunity, but I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with our Guardsmen later that evening, as I moved around the city to many of the locations at which they were posted.

I also want to address a few other matters that have been raised about that evening.

First, National Guard forces did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas into the crowd, as reported.

Second, Guardsmen were instructed to wear helmets and personal protective equipment for their own protection, not to serve as some form of intimidation.

Third, military leaders, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were wearing field uniforms because that is the appropriate uniform when working in a command center and meeting with troops in the streets. 

Fourth, it wasn't until yesterday afternoon that we determined it was a National Guard helicopter that hovered low over a city block in D.C. Within an hour or so of learning of this, I directed the secretary of the Army to conduct an inquiry to determine what happened and why, and to report back to me.

Now, you all have been very generous with your time, so let me wrap up by stating again how very proud I am of our men and women in uniform. The National Guard, over the short span of several months, has gone from tackling natural disasters such as floods, to combating the coronavirus across the country, to now dealing with civil unrest in support of law enforcement on the streets of America, all while many of their fellow Guardsmen are deployed abroad, defending against America's real adversaries.

Most importantly, I want to assure all of you and all Americans that the Department of Defense, the Armed Services, our uniformed leaders, our civilian leaders and I take seriously our oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and to safeguard those very rights contained in that -- that document we cherish so dearly.

This is a tough time for our great country these days, but we will get through it. My hope is that instead of the violence in the streets, we will see peaceful demonstrations that honor George Floyd, that press for accountability for his murder, that move us to reflect about racism in America and that serve as a call to action for us to come together and to address this problem once and for all.

This is the America your military represents. This is the America we aspire to be, and this is the America that we are committed to defending with our lives. Thank you.

STAFF: We'll go to the phones. Bob Burns?

Q: Yeah, thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Taking you back to your comments about Monday evening, when you left the White House with the president and others, I think if I heard you correctly, you said you did know that you were going to be going to the St. John's church, but you didn't know what would happen when you got there. And you've since been criticized by many for essentially participating at a presidential photo-op. So my question is, do you regret having participated?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I -- I did know that we were going to the church. I was not aware of a photo-op was happening. Of course, the president drags a large press pool along with him. And look, I did everything I can to try to stay apolitical and to try -- trying to stay out of situations that may appear political, and sometimes I'm successful with doing that, and -- and sometimes I'm not as successful. But my aim is to keep the department out of politics, to stay apolitical, and that's what I continue to try and do, as well as my leaders here in the department.

STAFF: All right. We'll go to Phil Stewart.

Q: Yeah, hi. 

Mr. Secretary, could you address, there's been a lot of criticism of your use of the word "battlespace" when you describe areas inside the United States where people are protesting. Could you -- would you like to take that phrase back? And when you talk about keeping the military apolitical, how do you see, you know, the department navigating this when the response to protests has become a partisan issue?


SEC. ESPER: Well, I'll take your second question first, Phil.

That is the challenge, right? It's -- it's a -- there -- there's a political tone to this. We are in a political season. An election approaches, and this is always a challenge for every Department of Defense in every election year. And so this is something we're going to continue to deal with as we creep closer and closer to election season.

I've been speaking about the importance of staying out of politics by remaining apolitical to my leadership since -- since I took office. I reinforced it when I came in, when we started the -- the new year, and I've talked about it several times since then. But this will be the ongoing challenge.

With regard to your first question, as -- as you rightly said, earlier this week I was quoted as saying the -- the best way -- way to get street violence under control was by dominating the battlespace, and probably all of you who cover the Pentagon hear us use this phrase often. It's something we use day in and day out. There are other phrases that we use day in, day out that you'll understand, that most people don't understand. It is part of our military lexicon that I grew up with, and it's what we -- we routinely use to describe a bounded area of operations. It's not a phrase focused on people, and certainly not on our fellow Americans, as some have suggested.

It is a phrase I used over the weekend when speaking with Minnesota Governor Walz. He and I spoke a couple times on Friday and Saturday as I spoke to him about DOD's support to what was happening there. Keep in mind, it was only a -- a -- a few short days ago, where Minneapolis was the epicenter and all eyes were focused on -- on Minnesota.

But Governor Walz is also a former member of the National Guard, and I was complimenting him on the call with the governors about what he had done. It was his successful use of the Guard in sufficient numbers that really wrested control of the streets from the looters and others breaking the law, and that's -- so I was giving him credit for that. And he was doing so so the peaceful demonstrations could be held, so that peaceful demonstrators could share their frustration and their anger.

That's what I was encouraging other governors to consider. In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we are militarizing the issue.

STAFF: All right, Luis Martinez.

Q: Hi, sir. Thank you much for a very -- for doing this briefing.

Some of the people that criticized you for the term of battlespace were some of America's most respected former generals, and they said that that was just inappropriate language.

And if I could move on to what you knew about the situation at Lafayette Square, were you aware that the park police were going to use such strong measures in pushing back the -- the protesters there? And did you express any concern that that may not be exactly what needed to happen to make that photo-op possible?

SEC. ESPER: Thanks for the question, Luis.

I -- I was not aware of law enforcement's plans for the park. I was not briefed on them, nor should I expect to be. But they -- they had taken what actions I -- I assume they felt was necessary, given what they faced. But I was not briefed on the plans and was -- was not aware of what they were doing.

STAFF: All right, Dan Lamothe.

Q: Hi, yes, Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time. 

I realize you're trying to keep the department out of politics, but it took you a week to -- to say anything along the lines of what you did at the top of this call and -- and your strong -- strong comments this morning about George Floyd. In -- in light of the more than 200,000 black service members in uniform and the pain across the country, why did it take so long? 


SEC. ESPER: Thanks -- thanks, Dan.

It's a fair question. I think you may have written about this, and as you rightly said, I've worked very hard to keep the department out of politics, which is very hard these days as we move closer and closer to an election.

You know, remaining apolitical means that there are times to speak up and times not to. And as I said in my earlier remarks, what happened to George Floyd happens way too often in this country. And most times, we don't speak about these matters as a department.

But as events have unfolded over the past few days, it became very clear that this is becoming a very combustible national issue. And what I wanted to do -- I had made the determination, as events escalated in the last 72 hours, that the moment had reached a point where it warranted a clear message to the department about our approach.

And so, given the dynamics, I wanted to lead by crafting my own statement for the department first -- which I did yesterday, and you all should have seen it and got it, it went out, this piece of paper -- my message to the force, which set, I thought was the proper tone for service members and DOD civilians and all, and giving my leaders the space to also craft similar messages, expressing our outrage at what happened, expressing our commitment to the Constitution, expressing our commitment as an institution to -- to end racism and hatred in all its forms, and just a general expression with regard to what the department is about.

So that -- that's the timeline, Dan, if you will, and that's why it did, and I do that with great counsel from the -- my advisors.

STAFF: We'll go -- one more from the phones.

Q: The chiefs, several of the chiefs were interested in speaking up sooner. Sometimes when you say nothing, that says something unto itself. In retrospect, would you have done so more quickly?

SEC. ESPER: Well, we did -- we -- you know, General Milley, we talked to the chiefs. There was -- most of the chiefs wanted to take the lead from me, and -- and so what I told them is I was -- through the chairman, I was going to take -- I was going to send the initial message out, again to set the tone, to express my views and then I'd give them the space to share their views as well, to do so.

And, again, this is -- we are a week into this, or so. And when you look at what's escalated, it's been a matter of 72 hours, maybe 96 or so. So -- and we've been consumed with a lot of things between now and then. But I do think it's important to speak up and to speak out and to share what we view, again, as an institution, the racism that exists in America and how we view it as an institution.

Again, I think we've led on these issues over the history of the United States military, and we'll continue to do so, certainly while I'm at the helm.

STAFF: All right, one more from the phone. Tom Bowman?

If not Tom, then Nick Schifrin?

Q: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for doing this. If I could take you back to the other night. I know you're saying that you didn't know exactly what the plans were. But with all due respect, those plans were designed by the commander in chief and also by Bill Barr -- of course the fellow cabinet secretary, and someone who is in the command center with you. So how could you not know about those plans and what does it say about those plans, to both clear the park and go to the church and do what the president did?

And number two, I know you're conducting an inquiry on the use of the helicopter. You may not want to say this, but do you believe it was inappropriate to use a medevac helicopter to intimidate protesters? Thank you.

SEC. ESPER: On the first thing, Nick, again, I think there's some speculation with regard to what you -- what you stated. I'd encourage you to speak to the Department of Justice as, again, it was a law enforcement action.

I had not yet arrived at the command post, I was en route to the command post when I was asked to return to the White House to update the president. I got back to the White House, and within a short period of time, we were -- the president went out to give his remarks.

So there was no space in between there, there was no opportunity to get a briefing and again, nor would I expect to get a briefing on what the law enforcement community was planning to do with regard to the clearing a park. Again, that was not a military decision, it was not a military action. The National Guard was there in support of the -- in support of law enforcement.

With regard to your second question, I would just say this much. I'm not going to comment because I've asked that an inquiry be made. I want to make sure I understand why -- what happened, who was involved, what orders were they given or not given, was there a safety issue involved, right? With an aircraft hovering that low.

So there's a lot of questions that need to be answered. I spoke to Secretary McCarthy last night about it, he is digging into it and we will get the facts, and we'll go back from there.

STAFF: All right. In the room, Tara?

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. So you served in the D.C. National Guard --

SEC. ESPER: I did, that's right.

Q: -- to follow on Nick's question, were you surprised that a medical helicopter from the D.C. National Guard was used to intimidate people who were peacefully assembling?

And then secondly, as this goes on, you've asked the secretary of the Army to look into this, who tasked the helicopter --

SEC. ESPER: Right.

Q: Was the helicopter under the authority of the Department of Justice? Is that why there's this kind of murkiness about how the helicopter was tasked, how a medical helicopter was used in an aggressive form?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, so those are some of the details we have to tease out in terms of, you know, who directed it, what was request, was it at the request of law enforcement. You made a statement that it was to intimidate protesters. I got a report back that they were asked by law enforcement to look at a checkpoint, a National Guard checkpoint to see if there were protesters around.

So there's conflicting reports. I don't want to add to that. I think we need to let the Army conduct its inquiry, and then get back and see what the facts actually are.

Q: But when you looked at the video, if you didn't see it live --

SEC. ESPER: I -- look, I think when you're landing that low in a city, it's -- it looks unsafe to me, right? But I need to find out -- I need to learn more about what's going on. It would not be unsafe if they were a medevac bird picking up somebody who was seriously injured or something like that, right? It would be a different circumstance.

So we have to find out all the facts, take it all in, and let the Army do its work and then come back with -- with what they discovered.

Let's --

Q: But to your understanding, it was not a medevac mission?

SEC. ESPER: I -- that's -- right, my understanding, it wasn't.

I need to -- I'm sorry, but I need to actually head to the White House. So I just want to wrap up by saying something to the -- directly to the men and women of the Department of Defense. And let me say this.

As I said in my message to the department yesterday, I appreciate your professionalism and dedication to defending the Constitution for all Americans. Moreover, I am amazed by the countless remarkable accomplishments of the Department of Defense in today's trying times.

From repatriating and sheltering Americans who were evacuated from a foreign land, to delivering food and medical supplies to communities in need, and to protecting our cities and communities, in every challenge and across every mission, the U.S. military has remained ready, capable, and willing to serve.

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. For well over two centuries, the United States military has earned the respect of the American people by being there to protect and serve all Americans.

Through your steadfast dedication to the mission and our core values, and your enduring support to your fellow Americans, we will safeguard the hard-earned trust and confidence of the public as our nation's most respected institution.

Thank you.