Since the earliest days of his presidency, President Donald Trump has showered “his generals” with an absurd amount of adoration, transforming America's military brass from mere advisors to symbols of legitimacy and trust within his administration.
But in the protests that have followed the death of unarmed African-American man George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer — and Trump's subsequent threats to deploy the military to quell protests nationwide — the president's implicit reliance on generals appears weakened as military leaders speak out and contradict the president's message of force.
In recent days, several generals from past administrations have spoken out strongly against both Trump personally and the approach his administration has taken to the violence that has rocked in recent days, from current Defense Secretary Mark Esper referring to American cities as “battle space” to Trump's demand that governors use the National Guard to “dominate” protestors in their states.
Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.
This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.
It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president's visit outside St. John's Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.
Whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.
Our active duty military must remain above the fray of domestic politics, and the best way to do that is to keep that force focused on its rightful mission outside the United States. Our senior active duty military leaders must make that case forcefully and directly to national leadership, speaking truth to power in uncomfortable ways. They must do this at the risk of their career. I hope they will do so, and not allow the military to be dragged into the maelstrom that is ahead of us, and which will likely only accelerate between now and November. If they do not stand and deliver on this vital core value, I fear for the soul of our military and all of the attendant consequences. We cannot afford to have a future Lafayette Square end up looking like Tiananmen Square.
America’s military, our sons and daughters, will place themselves at risk to protect their fellow citizens. Their job is unimaginably hard overseas; harder at home. Respect them, for they respect you. America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.
I cannot get out my mind the lack of emotion on the faces of the officers as Mr. Floyd said repeatedly, 'I can’t breathe.' And all this transpiring while others called out for the officers to let him up, though none physically intervened.
At the same time, it is with some understanding but again sadness I watch the destruction of neighborhoods in our Nation as demonstrators, most local citizens, but including some professional agitators, express their anger and frustration over another killing of a black man by police that, to the great majority of Americans it was clear, did not have to die. At the same time some violate the law by attacking police, looting and burning businesses in their communities, many of which are unlikely to return or rebuild. You are justifiably angry.
The “battle space” of America??? Not what America needs to hear…ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure…ie a Civil War…
The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.
You're not going to use, whether it is the military or the National Guard or law enforcement, to clear peaceful American citizens for the president of the United States to do a photo op. There is nothing morally right about that.
Within the administration, other generals and military leaders have spoken out both against racism and policy brutality and to reaffirm their commitment to upholding the constitutional rights of citizens regardless of their orders.
Every Soldier and Department of the Army Civilian swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution. That includes the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We will continue to support and defend those rights, and we will continue to protect Americans, whether from enemies of the United States overseas, from COVID-19 at home, or from violence in our communities that threatens to drown out the voices begging us to listen. To Army leaders of all ranks, listen to your people, but don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Lead with compassion and humility, and create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing grievances. Let us be the first to set the example. We are listening. And we will continue to put people first as long as we are leading the Army. Because people are our greatest strength
First right now, I think we need to listen. We have black Americans in our Navy and in our communities that are in deep pain right now. They are hurting. I’ve received emails, and I know it’s not a good situation. I know that for many of them, they may not have somebody to talk to. I ask you to consider reaching out, have a cup of coffee, have lunch, and just listen.
The second thing I would ask you to consider in the Navy we talk a lot about treating people with dignity and respect – in fact, we demand it. It’s one of the things that makes us a great Navy and one of the things that makes me so proud of all of you every single day. But over the past week, after we’ve watched what is going on, we can’t be under any illusions about the fact that racism is alive and well in our country. And I can’t be under any illusions that we don’t have it in our Navy.
Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020. We all wish it were not possible for racism to occur in America … but it does, and we are at a moment where we must confront what is.”
[W]hat happens on America’s streets is also resident in our Air Force … Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias. We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice.
We will not shy away from this … As leaders and as Airmen, we will own our part and confront it head on.
I am sickened by the death of George Floyd. I am horrified his six year old daughter will grow up without a father. And I am enraged that this story—of George Floyd, of Philando Castile, of Trayvon Martin, and too many others—keeps happening in our country, where unarmed men and women of color are the victims of police brutality and extrajudicial violence.
Everyone who wears the uniform of our country takes an oath to uphold the Constitution and everything for which it stands. If we are to fulfill our obligation as service members, as Americans, and as decent human beings, we have to take our oath seriously. We cannot tolerate racism, discrimination, or casual violence. We cannot abide divisiveness and hate. We cannot stand by and watch. We ask for the intercession of what Abraham Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature.' Join me.
We all committed our lives to the idea that is America. We will stay true to that oath and the American people.
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 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.