Defense secretary calls for accountability in George Floyd’s ‘murder,’ opposes use of active duty troops

Defense Secretary Mark Esper gives a press conference at the Pentagon, June 3, 2020, in Arlington, Va. - (ABC News)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper gives a press conference at the Pentagon, June 3, 2020, in Arlington, Va. - (ABC News)

By ELIZABETH MCLAUGHLIN and LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday called the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman “a horrible crime” and called for the officers involved to “be held accountable for his murder.”

It was the first time that the secretary addressed Floyd’s death, which occurred more than a week ago on May 25, and the nationwide protests over racial inequality in America ever since.

“With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd, for me and the department,” Esper said during a Pentagon briefing. “Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it.”

The secretary also said that he does not support the deployment of active duty military troops on city streets, as President Donald Trump has threatened to order, saying the National Guard is best suited for providing support to local law enforcement.

He called the use of active duty forces “a matter of last resort” and said he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows the president to deploy active duty troops within the United States under limited circumstances.

“We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said.

The secretary has faced criticism for his handling of the military’s role in responding to the civil unrest that swept the country after Floyd’s killing.

A statement by Esper to the force on Tuesday night largely focused on the military’s role in defending the Constitution and staying apolitical “in these turbulent days.” That same night, the Washington Post reported that senior Pentagon officials had directed the military service chiefs to keep quiet about the issues, despite some expressing interest in responding.

Esper was also called out for urging states “to dominate the battle space” during a Monday call with President Donald Trump and governors — a recording of which was obtained by ABC News.

Two retired four-star generals took the rare step of publicly condemning Esper’s comments, arguing the language was inappropriate to describe the current situation. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns that the secretary’s words could be seen as laying the groundwork for the invocation of the Insurrection Act, according to a former senior administration official.

While the president has threatened the use of the military to quell protests that have turned violent, so far it has been the task for thousands of National Guard members to assist state and local law enforcement operations, not active duty troops.

Still, earlier this week, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, along with active duty military police units from Fort Bragg, Fort Drum and Fort Riley, staged at Joint Base Andrews outside of the nation’s capital in case they were requested.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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