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A US lawmaker says using troops against protesters will harm the military’s legitimacy

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a former Pentagon official on the House Armed Services committee, thinks time is running out to protect the military from Trump.

A person making the Black Power salute with fist raised faces a line of military police in riot gear.
A protester kneels in front of military police near the White House to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, on June 3, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump continues to signal he will use active-duty military forces to quash riots that spring up alongside peaceful protests against police brutality. If he does that, it’s possible he could ruin the US military’s reputation for a generation.

Demonstrations have continued and grown in every American state and many cities, most dramatically outside the White House. Last Friday, Trump’s security detail rushed him to the mansion’s bunker for safety despite no immediate threat, prompting Trump to bristle that he looked weak in a crisis.

In response, Trump reached for the military to bolster his image and ego, brandishing force to quash the violence and looting. To do so, he’s pushed for out-of-state National Guard members to patrol the streets of Washington, DC, against the mayor’s will; deployed 1,600 active-duty troops on the Capitol’s doorstep; and threatened to send more forces around the country to arrest vandals.

Should Trump take a further step and invoke a centuries-old law that allows him to deploy active-duty forces against the will of state governors, it’s likely Americans will begin to lose faith in the vaunted institution of the military.

That’s the argument Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a House Armed Services Committee member and former senior Pentagon official, made in a viral Twitter thread on June 1. She asserted that Trump is on the precipice of ruining the US military’s reputation and that its leaders — namely Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chair — aren’t doing enough to push back.

That’s not only a crisis for relations between the US military and the citizenry, the lawmaker wrote, but also for the future of American democracy.

I called Slotkin to talk more about why she feels so passionately about this issue. To her mind, nothing less than the future of the US military is at stake.

“If you’re a 22-year-old peaceful protester and the US military uses tear gas and uses unnecessary force like flash-bangs and other tactics in your city, mistakes are going to be made, and that 22-year-old will take that with him for the rest of his life,” Slotkin told me. “He will certainly never volunteer to serve in the military, and he will certainly not support the needs of the military.”

Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

You wrote a viral Twitter thread about why the way President Trump wants to use the military in the protest response troubles you. Why is that?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

Because I think it speaks to our status and our health as a democracy, and I’m worried about it doing serious damage to the reputation of the military, which is one of the remaining widely respected institutions that enjoys nonpartisan support.

I want to look back on this week and say it was an aberration: We were looking into the abyss as the president threatened to send in active-duty troops against the will of governors, backing that up by events where he pushed unarmed protesters away for a stunt, with the support of the uniformed and the civilian leaders of the Pentagon.

I want to look back on this as a really dark week, not as the start of Trump breaking a cultural norm and precipitating greater violence.

I think we’re quite literally at a crossroads, because I don’t know if this is going to be a week we look back on as a historical blip or if this is the start of something more significant.

Alex Ward

What specifically do you mean by a “cultural norm”? And what are you implying when you say “something more significant”?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

My husband was in the Army for 30 years. My stepdaughter is in the Army, my son-in-law is in the Army. When you grow up around the military — and certainly when you serve in a combat zone with the military as I have — you realize US armed forces are deeply apolitical, both in law and in spirit.

While the president technically has the legal option through the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy active-duty troops in the country, it’s long been considered a cultural norm that you invoke it only as a last resort and only when the situation truly warrants it.

The violence on the ground either got so bad that local authorities show almost no capacity to manage it — like the 1992 Los Angeles riots — or local leaders refused to implement law, like when some governors wouldn’t follow federal civil rights statutes.

We don’t have either of those scenarios right now. Yet the president very cavalierly used deploying the active-duty military as a threat to the governors. And then his administration cleared the square next to the White House of unarmed protesters not because they got violent, not because the local law enforcement was overwhelmed, but because it was easier for his photo op.

It breaks with a cultural tradition of using active-duty military only in a moment of desperate last resort.

Alex Ward

Some argue, though, that the active-duty military is the only way to quash any element of civil unrest right now.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

Yes, it’s a bad precedent to be setting because I don’t see these protests abating. While most of them are peaceful, there are looters and there are people who are opportunists taking advantage of the situation and committing crimes.

Number one, I don’t like thinking about the prospect of my stepdaughter being called in to put down folks in the street who are committing crimes because she’s not trained to do that. There is a skill to law enforcement that has to be trained. If we haven’t learned that through our time in Iraq and in Afghanistan, I don’t know when we’ll learn it. There is a skill to law enforcement that our military does not have naturally, it has to be taught.

Number two, I certainly don’t want her involved in putting down unarmed peaceful protests or pushing unarmed peaceful protesters off of a mark using heavily armored-up active-duty forces. That prospect really wounds me and scares me.

Alex Ward

What options does your stepdaughter have if given an unlawful order during a potential policing mission?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

The options should be presented to her leadership. That’s why in the Twitter thread I wasn’t talking to her or her peers, I was talking to the senior civilian [Esper] and a senior uniformed military official [Milley] of the nation. It is their responsibility to make those decisions on behalf of the institutions they love. It is not the lieutenant’s job to figure out what is an appropriate order or not, that is the role of leadership.

I was glad to see Defense Secretary Mark Esper get on the podium and talk about how he didn’t think the Insurrection Act should be used in contrast to what the president wanted. That’s good, I applaud him for that.

The question is not whether he thinks it should be used or not, though. The question is what will he do when he’s given the order?

Alex Ward

Would you want him to resign?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

I would want him to do the right thing for the institution that he loves, and I know he loves the US military.

If there is not truly a just cause — meaning local law enforcement is completely overrun, there’s no law enforcement anywhere in a city, local law enforcement and the governor agree they need help and the National Guard can’t handle it somehow — that may be a different story.

But the conditions I see today, echoing what Secretary Esper said in his press conference on Wednesday, do not warrant using the Insurrection Act. I would expect the secretary to follow his words with deeds and say, “No, Mr. President, I can’t support that.“ If it risks his job, you know what? Better his job than the reputation of the military.

Alex Ward

Are you worried sending in active-duty troops will harm the military’s reputation among the citizenry?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

Right now, most Americans support the military. They believe in an all-volunteer force, and they believe that our military protects us and does a good job doing it. I know from my father-in-law, who served in Vietnam, what it was like when the majority of Americans didn’t support our military. It took a generation to recover from Vietnam.

I think that if active-duty troops are used in the streets of our cities, we will lose that near-universal support for an institution that I really care about. It will make the military less effective, and it will make us as a nation question our military and their intent.

If this president uses the military as a political club against his perceived enemies, what’s to stop a future president — even a Democratic president — from sending in active-duty troops to clear out a conservative-leaning protest movement like I had in my own district in Lansing, Michigan?

We had armed, anti-coronavirus lockdown protesters on the steps of my Capitol push their way onto the floor of the Michigan Senate carrying semi-automatic weapons. And while I don’t agree with the reasons behind their protests, and I certainly don’t agree with their pushing through and entering the Senate chamber, they do have a right to protest.

What if a different president sent in active-duty troops to take care of a different type of protest movement? I wouldn’t support that either.

Alex Ward

It almost sounds like you’re saying Trump is personally putting the military’s reputation at risk.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

Absolutely, absolutely. If you’re a 22-year-old peaceful protester and the US military uses tear gas and uses unnecessary force like flash-bangs and other tactics in your city, mistakes are going to be made, and that 22-year-old will take that with him for the rest of his life. He will certainly never volunteer to serve in the military, and he will certainly not support the needs of the military.

We rely on that consent from the American citizens to send our troops to protect us and to well-resource them. The Pentagon budget is huge. If the American public doesn’t support the American military, fewer resources follow.

Alex Ward

In your thread, you noted that you worked with Gen. Milley and that you hope he’s thinking seriously about the moral and ethical issues surrounding his role. He did put out a memo telling troops to follow the law, but he also did walk around the nation’s capital in his battle uniform. Is he living up to his duties?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

My husband works at the Pentagon. He was in uniform for 30 years, and he would never walk through the streets of DC wearing his fatigues. He wouldn’t even wear his [formal attire] because that’s not what we are taught to do.

In the military, you are taught that we don’t want a vision of a militarized society. We’re not a place where our military is running around everywhere. Milley on Monday could’ve said, “Mr. President, I think it sends the wrong signal to go in my [combat fatigues] with you on a press event, I need to sit this one out.” I don’t know if he did that, but I don’t think so.

We all have choices, and I personally know of Mark Milley’s great love for the military. But this is the time when we need leaders to step up and think beyond the next 12 or 24 hours. Right now, what’s standing between the president and the souring of the reputation of the US military is Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley.

Alex Ward

Are you implying they haven’t lived up to this moment, then?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

Well, we’re in the moment. This is the moment. Secretary Esper’s press conference, I thought, was a step in the right direction. But the moment is, in my mind, vaguely about a week. There’s a lot going on, and I expect military leadership to do everything that they can to calm the waters instead of exacerbating the situation.

Alex Ward

And that situation is Trump using the military as his own personal plaything while not thinking about larger consequences?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

I think “plaything” is probably too strong because “plaything” is like fluffying and sort of implying he’s not thinking. I think he’s thinking very deliberately. I think that in his mind, he doesn’t seem to see a problem with breaking American norms and very cavalierly talking about using active-duty military forces in American cities. The fact that he doesn’t see anything wrong with it scares me more than anything.

Conor Murray contributed to the completion of this post.