Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy confirmed later Sunday that all out-of-state National Guardsmen would be withdrawn from the nation’s capital within 48 to 72 hours and all active-duty U.S. troops that had been put on alert outside the city earlier in the week had gone home. He said officials were working on a plan to deactivate D.C. National Guardsmen as well but expected they would still help local police and federal law enforcement in the coming days.
“Over the course of these last 48 hours, the National Guard, as well as our interagency partners working with (D.C.) Chief of Police Peter Newsham, looked at the trends, saw that it had become very peaceful in nature, and started to develop a plan for withdrawal of first out-of-state National Guardsmen supporting the D.C. Guard — and then how do we get on a glide path to turning off the D.C. Guard,” McCarthy said in a call with reporters.
The drawdown marks a de-escalation in a military presence that prompted rebukes from high-profile retired officers, including former defense secretary Jim Mattis and several former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, who criticized the president for wanting to use the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy active-duty troops into an American city without sufficient cause.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser had blasted the Trump administration for tapping National Guardsmen from 11 states and federal law enforcement officials from agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration to patrol the city’s streets after May 31 demonstrations grew violent with episodes of looting and arson. In some cases, the federal agents didn’t wear clear identifying badges or insignia.
Bowser had asked the federal government to deploy the D.C. Guard, which answers to the president because the District isn’t a state, but characterized the Trump administration’s outsized response as an overreaction that could further inflame the situation nationally.
The Trump administration deployed some 5,240 National Guardsmen to the city, roughly equivalent to the number of American troops in Iraq, in addition to amassing about 1,600 active-duty forces at bases outside the nation’s capital and bringing in a phalanx of federal law enforcement agents. Critics accused Trump of mounting the mass response for political purposes ahead of November’s election, as he tweeted the Nixon-era phrase “Law and Order!” over and over again on Twitter.
Initially, Trump had wanted the guardsmen to be armed, and a small contingent of about a dozen did patrol monuments with weapons, even as the vast majority took on support roles without their firearms. But Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper later ordered the guardsmen to disarm entirely without consulting the White House. Midweek, Esper also announced he wasn’t in favor of using the Insurrection Act at this time and was beginning to withdraw active-duty forces, a move that angered Trump.
“We came right up to the edge of bringing active troops here, and we didn’t,” McCarthy said.
He said the Pentagon purposefully didn’t bring the active-duty forces that were put on alert into the city because officials didn’t want to invoke the Insurrection Act.
“We knew if we went to that escalation, it would be very difficult,” he said. Now, he said, “all active components have been turned off at this time.”
As Army secretary, McCarthy oversaw the D.C. Guard and the National Guard units brought in from other states on behalf of the president. He estimated the crowd size of Saturday’s protests in the district at 45,000 people. McCarthy is due to testify before the House this week to discuss the events in the capital after Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to appear.
McCarthy on Sunday defended the large-scale military presence ordered by Trump in the capital in recent days. He said the city’s “security elements” were almost overwhelmed during the May 31 events, noting that buildings were damaged, defaced and lit on fire and that people tried to get over the fence of the White House. He said five guardsmen were hit with bricks.
“We had soldiers hurt. We had our national symbols . . . defaced. You had people trying to get over the fence on the North Lawn. There was a lot of confusion in not knowing just what we were dealing with, as you saw the intensity build,” McCarthy said, adding that the extra forces were clearly needed.
Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said even though 5,240 guardsmen were put on duty in the District of Columbia, on a given day, only about 1,500 were on the streets because soldiers had to sleep, train and go through medical screenings.
Walker said the large presence was justified to protect federal monuments in particular. “Think about if something would have happened to the Dr. King memorial. Just let that process what that might have done to exacerbate the situation, or the African American Museum,” he said.
“What we could not have was a situation that would throw additional fuel on a flame,” Walker said.
National Guardsmen have faced criticism for their involvement in an incident near the White House on June 1, when federal authorities forcibly removed demonstrators from Lafayette Square so Trump could cross the street and take photos with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. The basement of the church had burned during protests the night before.
The guardsmen have no law enforcement authority on their own and were there backing up the U.S. Park Police, Walker said. The guardsmen weren’t armed with tear gas and therefore couldn’t have used it, he said.
Asked what prompted the protesters to be cleared, McCarthy said: “I don’t know what ultimately triggered the Park Police to make the clearing.”
After initially denying using tear gas to clear the square, a Park Police spokesman acknowledged using chemical agents similar to tear gas against protesters there.
The Pentagon has faced criticism for the behavior on June 1 of two helicopters from the D.C. Guard, which hovered over demonstrators and blasted them with gusty rotor wash from the aircraft. The D.C. Guard suspended all helicopter flight operations as a result, and Esper ordered a command investigation into the incidents.
McCarthy said he gave the order for the D.C. Guard’s helicopters to “observe and report” during demonstrations last Monday night. He said the investigation would reveal more about the incident.