Washington — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he opposes invoking the centuries-oldto deploy active-duty troops to states to quell protests, directly contradicting President Trump, who threatened on Monday to send the military to states that are unable to "dominate the streets" in response to large demonstrations.
"The option to use active-duty military should only be as a last resort. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," Esper said in a press conference at the Pentagon. The law, originally signed by Thomas Jefferson in 1807, allows the president to send military troops to a state if requested by the state legislature or governor. A provision of the law enacted in 1956 also allows the president to unilaterally deploy troops and federalize state national guard units in certain cases, including to suppress a rebellion.
A senior administration official told CBS News' Paula Reid that Esper's comments Wednesday morning were not well-received in the White House. At a press briefing later in the day, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany fielded a question about whether the president still has confidence in the defense secretary.
"With regard to whether the president has confidence, I would say, if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I'm sure you all will be the first to know," McEnany said in response to a question from CBS News' Weijia Jiang. "As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper, and should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future."
The Associated Press reported later on Wednesday that Esper had reversed an earlier Pentagon decision to send active-duty soldiers home from the Washington, D.C. region, after Esper had a meeting at the White House.
During his speech Monday evening in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Trump said, "If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them."
Mr. Trump's words on Monday came as federal law enforcement officers were forcefully dispersing protesters from the streets outside the White House. Joined by several members of his Cabinet, including Esper, Mr. Trump then walked through the cleared-out area for a photo opportunity in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by a small fire set by protesters on Sunday.
Esper said in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday that he was not given notice that the president would be visiting the church.
"I didn't know where I was going," Esper said. "I wanted to see how much damage actually happened."
Esper clarified his comments on Wednesday, saying that he did know the president and officials would be walking to the church. However, he said he was "not aware that a photo op was happening."
"My aim is to keep the department out of politics and stay apolitical," Esper said. He added that he was not aware of the plans to clear the park before Mr. Trump's walk, saying he wasn't at the command post when the order was given. CBS News has confirmed that Attorney General William Barr wasto expand the perimeter around the White House.