WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has told National Guardsmen deployed to the nation’s capital not to use firearms or ammunition, and has issued orders to send home active-duty troops that the Trump administration amassed outside the city in recent days, a sign of de-escalation in the federal response to protests in the city.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper made the decision to disarm the guard without consulting the White House, after President Donald Trump ordered a militarized show of force on the streets of Washington to quell demonstrations that were punctured by an episode of looting Sunday, two senior administration officials said. Trump had encouraged the National Guard to be armed.
Initially, a small group of guardsmen deployed in the city had been carrying guns while standing outside monuments, but the bulk of the forces, such as those working with federal park police at Lafayette Square in front of the White House, didn’t carry firearms out of caution. Now, all of the roughly 5,000 guardsmen deployed to Washington from the District of Columbia and 11 states have been told not to use weaponry or ammunition.
At a news conference Friday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said that some guardsmen in the District had been carrying arms on Monday, but noted that they did not have magazines of ammunition in their firearms. Beginning Tuesday, the Trump administration de-escalated further, he said, by removing firearms from the equation altogether.
“It was clear that there were enough federal law enforcement that had descended on the city, and that would be their principal responsibility,” McCarthy said.
The White House was not involved in the decision to disarm the Guard, the two senior officials said, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The order from the Pentagon comes as federal and district officials prepare for a crowd of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 protesters in Washington on Saturday and as the Pentagon looks to dial back the militarization of the response.
Because the District is a special federal jurisdiction without the status of a state, the D.C. National Guard is controlled by the president, who delegated his authority over the forces to McCarthy. The District’s mayor can request the deployment of the D.C. Guard but doesn’t have the power to deploy guardsmen herself or control them once deployed. Governors control the guard in other states.
A senior U.S. defense official said Esper communicated the order to disarm to the D.C. Guard and other guardsmen earlier in the week through McCarthy and Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the head of the National Guard. The order affected only about 10 guardsmen who had been out on patrol with firearms that weren’t loaded but with ammunition in their packs, the senior defense official said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had requested that the federal government deploy the D.C. Guard, initially to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, but has since criticized the Trump administration’s response in the city, which critics have described as an overreaction designed to boost the president politically with Americans outside the nation’s capital watching on television.
Trump’s response has included not only deploying D.C. guardsmen, as the mayor requested, but also calling up guardsmen from other states, sending active-duty forces to sites outside the capital for possible operations and bringing in other federal law enforcement officials from agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons and Customs and Border Protection to patrol the streets. Bowser has decried the fact that some of those federal agents have not been wearing identifying uniforms or badges.
The situation grew particularly tense after two helicopters from the D.C. Guard began hovering over protesters in the streets, blasting them with gusty rotor wash from the aircraft. All helicopter flight operations in the D.C. Guard have been suspended until an investigation into the incident ordered by Esper is complete, said D.C. Guard spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Brooke Davis.
Trump’s insistence on a militarized response in the nation’s capital has led to strains with Esper, a West Point graduate and former Army officer who took over as defense secretary last year. Esper announced publicly Wednesday that he wasn’t in favor of using the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops, even as the president threatened to invoke it.
Esper also said he was sending home some of the 1,600 active-duty troops amassed outside Washington but later stood down on that decision after a heated meeting with Trump.
On Thursday, the administration said some of those troops would indeed be leaving, and by Friday, McCarthy announced at the Pentagon that all active-duty soldiers would go home to their bases. The last group to leave will be the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard” that is permanently based just outside Washington at Fort Myer, Va., he said. As of Friday, all had been ordered to return but not all had departed.
Trump has battled with Esper about the military this week, with the president seeing the strong uniformed force in Washington as a deterrent to unrest. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has worried about the militarization of a response that defense officials believe must be led by law enforcement.
A senior administration official with direct knowledge of Trump’s thinking said he has been frustrated with Esper this week and has at times considered replacing him, but has been warned against doing so. Trump and his aides were angry at what they viewed as a public repudiation of the president by Esper, who doesn’t have a close personal relationship with the president, and a reticence to take aggressive military steps that Trump believed were needed.
It wasn’t clear whether the Pentagon was responding to pressure from the D.C. municipal government in its decision to disarm the guardsmen and send active-duty troops home. Bowser has been calling publicly for the guardsmen to be disarmed but has also pushed for disarming them in private conversations with federal officials, according to an official familiar with the matter.
McCarthy said he had been “trying to communicate with the mayor,” who had expressed frustration about the size of the military response in D.C. and the little information she had received about it in advance. McCarthy said he has been communicating extensively with the metropolitan police chief, meeting five or six times per day on city street corners.
“We’re doing everything possible to tighten the coordination,” McCarthy said, acknowledging that effectively commanding the guardsmen and communicating has been “challenging.”
“This has been a very, very challenging time for us,” he said.
In a letter sent to Trump on Thursday, Bowser informed the president that she had ended the city’s state of emergency and requested that he withdraw all extraordinary federal agents and military assets from the nation’s capital, explaining that the city was equipped to handle “large demonstrations and First Amendment activities.” She expressed particular concern about the federal agents not from the Department of Defense who had been brought into the city.
“I continue to be concerned that unidentified federal personnel patrolling the streets of Washington, D.C. pose both safety and national security risks,” the mayor wrote. “The deployment of federal law enforcement personnel and equipment are inflaming demonstrators and adding to the grievances of those who, by and large, are peacefully protesting for change and for reforms to the racist and broken systems that are killing Black Americans.”
Bowser posted a copy of the letter on Twitter on Friday and wrote: “I request that @realDonaldTrump withdraw all extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence from our city.”
But federal officials criticized her administration for resisting the presence of the National Guard units from other states.
Shortly after midnight, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) blamed Bowser for pushing the Utah National Guard and others out of D.C. hotels. On Friday afternoon, Trump accused her of “fighting with the National Guard,” without elaborating, in his first tweet directly criticizing her by name.
The mayor said she did not object to guardsmen staying in D.C. hotels but opposed their stay at the Marriott Marquis, where city government reserved rooms for coronavirus responders. The Utah Guard said it found a different hotel for its 200 service members.
Bowser underscored the city should not pay for their accommodation. “Those out-of-state troops would be covered either by the Army or their home states, not by D.C. residents,” she said.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) has opened an inquiry into whether the federal government had the legal authority to call National Guard troops from other states into the District.
The mayor has repeatedly said she did not request assistance from other states. But Trump has called up about 3,900 guardsmen from Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah to the city, in addition to the roughly 1,200 already activated in the D.C. National Guard. New Jersey’s governor said Friday its guardsmen were going home Saturday. The total number of guardsmen is roughly equivalent to the number of U.S. forces currently deployed to Iraq. The district has a population of about 700,000 people.
Military leaders at the Pentagon are aware of the risks of armed guardsmen stepping in to a role traditionally played by police in an American city. In 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard who were called in to help control Vietnam War protests at Kent State University opened fire on demonstrators, killing four students and wounding nine others. The situation prompted outrage nationwide and precipitated a crisis for the American military and its standing with the public.
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The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton contributed to this report.