But the June 1 appeal to states was different. President Trump was drawing instead on an obscure law, changed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that made it easier for governors to voluntarily send guardsmen across state lines for counterterrorism missions. His action was not an order but a request, essentially inviting states to augment the D.C. National Guard, which he controls, in a potential clash with civilian protesters.
The request had the effect of cleaving state militias along partisan lines, according to interviews and internal Guard documents. While red states jumped to answer the president’s call, governors and Guard commanders in blue states were incredulous. The result was a deployment to the nation’s capital that military historians say appears to have been without precedent: Over 98 percent of the 3,800 troops that arrived in the District came from states with Republican governors.
In a secure video conference that day with Guard leaders from across the country, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, head of the California National Guard, questioned the need for the massive deployment. Baldwin, who has led the force under multiple Democratic governors, said the situation in D.C. appeared no more urgent than that in California, where his troops were already stretched thin by dozens of planned protests.
“I love you like a brother,” Baldwin said to the top D.C. Guard official on the call, according to three people who were listening, “but f--- this, I have other things to worry about,” he said, before dropping off the line.
Baldwin declined to comment for this story.
Officials in Utah, by contrast, scrambled to respond. Within hours, Utah National Guard members who were waiting for an expected deployment to Afghanistan were instead put on planes bound for D.C. In the three days that followed, armed guardsmen streamed into the nation’s capital, nearly all from Republican-led states such as Florida, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The only Democratic-led state to send troops was New Jersey, which contributed fewer than 100 soldiers, and only on the condition that they be assigned security shifts at monuments and not engage with protesters outside the White House.
The same ability to mobilize National Guard troops from sympathetic states into Washington remains readily available today to Trump, who has repeatedly declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. On Tuesday, in the first presidential debate, Trump suggested that the election was being “rigged,” declaring that “this is not going to end well.”
In an interview last month with Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro, Trump was asked what he would do if his opponents “threaten riots if they lose on election night.”
“We’ll put them down very quickly if they do that,” Trump answered. He pointed to a June guard deployment in Minnesota as an example of how he could move with speed and effectiveness.
“If we had to, we’d do that and put it down within minutes, within minutes,” Trump said. “In Minneapolis, they were having problems. We sent in the National Guard, within a half an hour, that was the end of the problem — it all went away.”
That deployment was the decision of Minnesota’s governor, a Democrat, not Trump.
Trump’s effort to marshal the National Guard to his side was in some respects a portent. Over the summer, he and Attorney General William P. Barr repeatedly flexed federal power in American cities, or threatened to do so, often against the wishes of local and state officials. Democrats leading many of those cities denounced what they said were authoritarian tactics aimed at seeking election-year advantage.
The administration drew similar criticism for its actions in D.C. on June 1, when thousands of largely peaceful protesters were driven from city streets around the White House, clearing the way for the president and military leaders to cross Lafayette Square. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later apologized for his presence alongside Trump, saying it “created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” The most senior D.C. National Guard officer on the ground that day, in testimony he provided to Congress as a whistleblower, contradicted the administration’s claims that protesters were so violent that the street-clearing offensive was needed.
The White House declined to comment for this story, and the Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the legal basis for the June deployment or on the partisan divide in the response by state militias.
But in a letter to D.C. officials in June, Barr wrote that the deployment was justified because the protests had not remained “within the control of local law enforcement,” had “threatened federal operations around the White House complex” and that television footage “conveyed the impression that the United States was on the brink of losing control of its capital city.”
The mobilization to D.C. that would ultimately involve guard troops from 11 states began on May 30, after protests over police brutality that were roiling the nation reached D.C.
Trump’s Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, traveled to the hangar-like armory where the 1,200-person D.C. National Guard is based and ordered its commander, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, to begin deploying available troops to Lafayette Square. The troops were to back up U.S. Park Police officers maintaining a one-block buffer between the White House and the protests.
The next day, however, the numbers of protesters only grew. Inside the White House, Trump fumed, worrying that the images showed the country as out of control, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and deliberations of the president. In tweets and phone calls, Trump urged mayors and governors to “get tough” and to call out their own National Guard soldiers. For anyone contemplating breaching the White House grounds, Trump added a public warning that they would be attacked by “vicious dogs.”
That Sunday night, May 31, protests near Lafayette Square grew violent. An annex at the historic St. John’s Church was damaged by fire that appeared to have been set, and furniture in the lobby of the nearby AFL-CIO building was set ablaze.
The following morning, Trump, angry over what he perceived as the continued bad optics of the federal government lacking control, ratcheted up his call to restore law and order, the officials said. Trump wanted active-duty military on the streets of the capital by nightfall, one of the officials said.
Trump considered invoking the rarely used Insurrection Act of 1807, the two said. The power was tapped by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy in 1950s and ’60s to force Southern states to integrate schools. President Lyndon B. Johnson used it to send 4,700 Army troops to quell the Detroit riots in 1967. It has been used infrequently since, mostly when a governor has requested federal help to enforce laws. The last time that happened was when President George H.W. Bush dispatched 4,000 troops to the Rodney King riots in California in 1992.
Milley told Congress in July that he counseled against such a move. Instead, he recommended that active-duty military be placed on alert and flown to bases near D.C., but remain outside the city.
“My assessment and advice was . . . that under the prevailing conditions active-duty troops were, and are, not necessary to deploy on the streets of America. The Insurrection Act was, in fact, never invoked,” Milley said.
Milley and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper both testified that they saw violence as the exception in the days after Floyd’s death. “We should be proud that the vast majority of protests have been peaceful. Peaceful protest means that American freedom is working,” Milley said.
Esper added that Americans were “understandably” wanting to exercise their right to free speech following Floyd’s death. He blamed rioting and looting on a small number of people seeking to exploit the demonstrations.
Trump, however, repeatedly disparaged the protesters in D.C. as “anarchists.” Esper told Congress the president set a goal for how many guard troops he wanted to see patrolling city streets that night: 5,000.
That day, Trump suggested in a call with governors that protesters were about to be met with overwhelming force in the nation’s capital.
“If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re gonna walk away with you,” Trump said in a late-morning call, audio of which was soon leaked to reporters. “We’re doing it in Washington, in D.C. . . . We’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before,” he said, “we’re going to have total domination.”
Trump and his military leaders drew on the president’s little-known role as commander in chief of the D.C. National Guard, akin to that of a governor in a state, to facilitate the deployment.
But mobilizing so many guard troops on such short notice was highly unusual. It was complicated by the fact that more than 10,000 soldiers had already been called up by states to help shuttle supplies, take airline travelers’ temperatures and provide security at hospitals to help during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview, Walker, the D.C. guard commander, said he supported bringing in out-of-state troops. He likened it to requests from the guard every four years seeking troops from other states to help with inaugural events.
But the request was different. It was the first time a specific provision of federal law — 32 USC 502(f) — was used to provide federal funding for guard troops to travel to D.C. to counter acts of civil disobedience, a Defense Department spokesman acknowledged in an email to The Washington Post.
State Guard leaders said they were told at the time of the requested deployment that their states would be reimbursed under the provision. Barr also cited it as the authorizing language in a letter to D.C. officials on June 9.
For decades, the obscure statutory provision titled “Required drills and field exercises” dealt almost exclusively with how the U.S. government would reimburse states when guard soldiers were asked to travel for training exercises.
In the post-9/11 environment, guard troops had been patrolling airports and border crossings. The Pentagon was rethinking how, beyond emergency funding, it could facilitate the Guard responding to ongoing terrorist threats and any future attacks.
John Dehn, then a staff attorney at the U.S. Army Forces Command, was among a team working through the issues. Eventually, Congress addressed the funding issue by amending the training statute, making it possible for guard soldiers to be paid federally for “Support of operations or missions undertaken by the member’s unit at the request of the President or Secretary of Defense.” In 2006, Section F added two lengthy sentences.
“It was to deal with counterterrorism,” said Dehn, who is now a law professor and director of the National Security and Civil Rights Program at Loyola University’s School of Law in Chicago. “Nobody writing this new provision likely viewed it as ever becoming some sort of work around for the Insurrection Act.”
In its 15-year existence, the new provision had been used to pay guard soldiers deployed for inaugural events, drug-interdiction missions, surveillance and other support along the U.S.-Mexico border, and for small, ongoing rotations at ballistic missile sites.
Then came June 1, 2020.
From Trump and Esper, the request for troops to keep order in D.C. flowed to the Army, and to the chief of the National Guard Bureau. The group serves as the voice for state Guard forces at the Pentagon, and its leader is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
For months, the bureau had been holding a morning situational call for state Guard officials on the novel coronavirus. That day, the call was overtaken by the request coming from the White House.
“There was this tension that if states don’t cough up enough troops, the 82nd Airborne is going to go in there” to D.C., said one Guard official who was on the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.
The official said it was clear to everyone on the line that the request was unusual. “I don’t think anyone was unaware that we were in the midst of a very controversial day, and there wasn’t going to be a good answer, either way,” the official said.
Red states respond
In state capitals, any doubt about the unusual nature of the request faded as governors began receiving calls directly from Esper pleading for troops.
Two of those calls went to neighboring Maryland and Virginia — the former a state with a Republican governor, the latter led by a Democrat.
The secretary asked Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to activate what would have been nearly all of the state’s available Guard that day and to deploy them across the Potomac River into the District, according to two people briefed on their phone conversations that day.
Northam told Esper he would have to think about the request. The governor’s office began seeking more information.
Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, placed a call to John Falcicchio, the chief of staff to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
“Clark said, ‘What do you need?’ And to be honest, it was complete news to us,” Falcicchio said in an interview.
He said neither the White House, the Pentagon nor the D.C. Guard commander had informed the city’s mayor, police chief or homeland security officials that they were working to bring in the equivalent of a brigade of out-of-state militia — by nightfall, if all went according to plan.
Northam called Esper and told him Virginia would not send troops, according to the two people briefed on the call.
Mercer said the fact that city officials had been left in the dark was a significant concern. “What if you send them and something happens, and they’re not even wanted, that’s a potentially very bad situation,” he said.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan was more receptive. But he and state Guard commanders promised just 120 soldiers, and not before June 3, two days away, according to a guard official.
Across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, where most states are led by Democratic governors, officials declined to send troops. The only exceptions were New Jersey, which said it could initially spare 17 soldiers, and up to 80 within a couple days, and Delaware, which promised scores of soldiers and said it would try to send an initial group later that day.
None of that, however, approached the number Trump wanted on the ground that night.
By late afternoon in D.C., the anxiety among officials at the National Guard Bureau was palpable on a previously scheduled coronavirus video conference with commanding officers of all 50 states, said five people on the call.
Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, then the guard bureau chief, was “clearly frustrated” by the small number of troops who had been committed to reach D.C. by nightfall, said one state commanding general.
Two other guardsmen who were listening to the call said Baldwin, the California Guard commander, challenged the urgency of the requested deployment to D.C. after a planned coronavirus discussion was halted.
“They cut off the states and just kept asking, ‘How do we meet the 5,000 number,’ ” said one of them, a senior Guard official.
A deputy in the National Guard Bureau kept asking which states had military planes ready to fly or could have them ready that day, and how many troops each could get to D.C., said the other.
“The California [adjutant general] was not alone in questioning,” that official said. Baldwin’s comment was “a little bit of a dig,” the official said, reminding the National Guard Bureau that it “should be supporting the states, not the other way around. Everyone else on that call answers to their governor.”
In an interview in June, Lengyel said he was working through a tough task.
“It’s true I was busy, trying to get soldiers in” to D.C., Lengyel said. “That’s what I was asked to do.”
Lengyel did not return a follow-up call in July and retired in August. A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau referred further questions to Esper’s office. A Defense Department spokesman pointed a reporter to Esper’s testimony in July before a House committee investigating the Lafayette Square clearing.
Esper told the committee that, on Trump’s orders, and to “protect federal functions, personnel and property” he requested that governors provide 3,800 guardsmen toward that effort, pursuant to 32 USC 502(f).
Within hours of that request, however, a scene unfolded outside the White House that would further divide states.
Federal police in riot gear fired gas canisters and used grenades containing rubber pellets to scatter largely peaceful demonstrators. Without the thousands of Guard troops the White House wanted, the Park Police led the charge, flanked by an auxiliary force — largely assembled by Barr — that included U.S. marshals, federal agents, homeland security personnel and federal prison guards.
Park Police directed over 200 National Guard soldiers from D.C., at that moment still the only jurisdiction with troops in the capital, to rush forward and create a human barrier, blocking protesters from coming within several blocks of the White House. Their actions helped clear the way for the president, surrounded by Barr, Esper, Milley and others to walk to St. John’s Church for a three-minute photo op.
Later that night, two D.C. Army National Guard helicopters roared over demonstrators who remained on city streets after curfew. One hovered as low as 45 feet, using a war-zone tactic to whip up tropical storm-force winds to disperse crowds.
Watching the chaos on television, Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) reversed his decision. Buses loaded with Delaware National Guard troops were turned around and sent back to a state armory, according to two people familiar with the movements.
In the air at the time were about 100 members of the Utah National Guard. They would arrive after dark and take up positions near dawn across the U.S. capital, guarding monuments and a perimeter around the White House. The soldiers wore bulletproof vests and were armed.
By the end of that day, over 400 more National Guard troops would arrive from South Carolina, 300 from Mississippi and nearly 200 from Indiana. Following them were 300 from Missouri, over 500 from Florida and 1,000 from Tennessee.
Inside the D.C. Armory, ammunition and supplies from each arriving state piled up and the usually quiet gymnasium became a mess hall.
“We are serving as much meals or more as we would be in a forward location in Afghanistan or Iraq,” the D.C. National Guard said in a Facebook post. “More than 5,200 guardsmen . . . activated in support of a civil unrest mission.”
Two days later, Trump tweeted that he had given the order “for our National Guard to start the process of withdrawing from Washington, D.C.”
“Now that everything is under perfect control,” he wrote. “They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed.”
Alice Crites and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.