Former Joint Chiefs chairman blasts Trump and the portent of US troops on American streets

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Retired U.S. Navy admiral and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen spoke out Tuesday against the use of the National Guard and other personnel to clear protesters from outside the White House on Monday night before President Donald Trump walked over to the damaged St. John’s Church and held up a Bible for the cameras.

In a piece published Tuesday on The Atlantic’s website, the White House’s former top military adviser who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden said he was “sickened” by the action, adding that “there was little good in the stunt.”

“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,” wrote Mullen, who led the Joint Chiefs from 2007 to his retirement in 2011.

“Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit (to the church), 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.”

Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen address the media during a press availability at the Pentagon. (Navy)

Looting, fire and vandalism have accompanied peaceful protests in cities across America since May 25, when George Floyd died on a Minneapolis street after a white cop now facing murder charges held his knee on the black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, an event caught on bystanders’ phones.

Mullen wrote that, while the rioting cannot be condoned, no one should “lose sight of the larger and deeper concerns about institutional racism that have ignited this rage.”

He also urged Americans to remember that cities and towns that have hosted peaceful protests and lawless destruction are still “our homes and our neighborhoods.”

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“They are not ‘battle spaces’ to be dominated, and must never become so,” Mullen wrote in likely reference to a leaked weekend call where Defense Secretary Mark Esper said state leaders need to “dominate the battle space” where protests are occurring.

Mullen’s successor as Joint Chiefs chairman, now-retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, appeared to join the criticism when he tweeted Monday that “America is not a battleground.”

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. #BeBetter

— GEN(R) Martin E. Dempsey (@Martin_Dempsey) June 1, 2020

Addressing police brutality and discrimination against African American communities in a meaningful way won’t come about sooner via “an overly aggressive use of our military, active duty or National Guard,” Mullen cautioned.

“The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws,” he wrote. “The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.”

Mullen expressed confidence in the professionalism of America’s active-duty ranks, and that “they will obey lawful orders.”

“But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops.”

Mullen added that the threshold has not been crossed to appropriately invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that would allow the president to send active-duty troops into American cities without the request of governors.

It was last used in 1992, when riots erupted in Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted for the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black man.

“As a white man, I cannot claim perfect understanding of the fear and anger that African Americans feel today,” Mullen wrote. “But as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough — and I’ve seen enough — to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.”

About

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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