Adam Serwer: Trump gave police permission to be brutal
Still, the approach would risk catastrophe. Local leaders and police officers are more accountable to the people than soldiers are, and they know their needs better than Washington politicians do. Where extra help is needed, the National Guard, under the command of governors, is up to stopping riots. Deploying troops against the wishes of state and city leaders would only inflame passions, and could provoke a constitutional crisis.
Perhaps that’s why Secretary of Defense Mark Esper opposes the move. “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,” he said yesterday in a press conference. “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
Those reasons alone are sufficient to reject the approach. Yet another concern should loom even larger: Trump has shown himself unfit to lead the sorts of operations under discussion.
From the start, Trump has fanned the flames. Last month, he tweeted: “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” But the Fourth Amendment prohibits simply shooting looters unless they pose an imminent threat to a person. In other words, he has already suggested responses that would violate his oath of office.
More recently, Trump misused federal troops in Washington, D.C., where they are already deployed under his control. “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” General James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, wrote afterward. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Read: James Mattis denounces President Trump, describes him as a threat to the Constitution
Mattis went on to warn that militarizing our response sets up a false conflict between the military and civilians, eroding the moral ground “that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.”
That caution would apply under any president. “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’” Mattis added. “At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors.”
But the president is a man who once said this about the murder of peaceful protesters: