Republican Senate Leader Joins Esper in Opposing Trump's Invoking of the Insurrection Act

Senator John Thune, the Senate Majority Whip, has come out against deploying military troops to quell unrest in cities across the country, backing similar remarks made by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, which were at odds with President Donald Trump's previous warnings.

"I think that these tasks ought to be relegated as much as possible to the state and local authorities, the law enforcement and police," Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, told reporters on Wednesday. The senator noted that "the goal always is to de-escalate, not escalate."

The GOP lawmaker added that he believes "the Defense Department by and large ought to stay out of the political fray. They've got a job to do and we count on them heavily to do it."

John Thune
Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) speaks to the press after a meeting with Republican Senators in the Hart Senate Office Building on May 19 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty

The U.S. has faced a wave of nationwide protests over the past week and a half, following the death of George Floyd. The middle-aged black man died on May 25 after he was detained by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A viral video of the incident showed a white police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, which an independent autopsy confirmed caused his death.

While protests over Floyd's death have been largely peaceful, some individuals have turned to looting and vandalism. Some police officers have also responded violently to demonstrators.

Thune's remarks came after Esper earlier on Wednesday also came out against deploying the military, which President Donald Trump had threatened to do during a controversial Monday evening speech.

"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 situations. We are not in one of those situations now," the defense secretary said.

"I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act," he added.

Speaking on Monday in front of the White House, Trump warned that he would send in the U.S. military to address the nationwide unrest if local leaders did not take the steps he felt were necessary.

"Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled. If a city or 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," the president said.

Newsweek has reached out to the White House for comment on Thune's and Esper's remarks, but it had not responded by the time of publication.

Trump's warning would require invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows for the U.S. military to patrol and police cities and municipalities within the country. The law was used in the 1950s to force desegregation throughout the South, in the 1960s during riots in Detroit and in 1992 in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King, a black man, by LAPD officers.

Leading Democrats were quick to criticize the president's warning.

"Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears," presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said in a Tuesday speech. The former vice president added that the U.S. is "not horses rising up on their hind legs to push back a peaceful protest. Not using the American military to move against the American people."

But polling by Morning Consult conducted from May 31 to June 1 showed that the majority of Americans actually support calling in the military to address demonstrations and protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd. The survey data showed that 58 percent of respondents supported sending in the military, while just 30 percent opposed the measure.