Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has ordered that active duty troops who were moved to the Washington DC area should return to their home base of Fort Drum in New York, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Friday.
On Thursday, Esper ordered about 700 of the 1,600 active duty troops who were brought to the Washington region on Monday back to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Friday’s order to the New York-based troops removes almost all the active duty presence brought in to bolster law enforcement. The troops had been positioned around Washington on “heightened alert status” to allow for their quick deployment amid nationwide protests.
McCarthy also announced that the crew of a helicopter seen flying low over protesters in Washington on Monday night has been grounded pending an investigation into whether those flights were conducted appropriately.
McCarthy said that a small active duty component of the “Old Guard” based in Arlington, Virginia, will remain on stand-by for assistance, but that he hopes they will be taken off alert status this weekend. That will be contingent on protests in the capital continuing to be peaceful, McCarthy added.
The National Guard helicopter seen flying low over protesters in Washington on Monday night had a “stated mission” that included deterring criminal activity such as rioting and looting by keeping a presence overhead, according to a defense official who has direct knowledge of the orders the crew had.
The Lakota UH-72 was also supposed to also deter “unlawful assembly,” provide medical evacuation from the crowd if needed and provide surveillance to command and control for force protection, the official said.
The official declined to be identified because the D.C. National Guard is now investigating whether flights were conducted appropriately. The investigation is focusing on how those orders resulted in the low-level flights that sent debris flying and was intimidating to civilians, the official said.
McCarthy also confirmed that “a handful” of DC National Guard troops were armed earlier this week but on Tuesday the decision was made to “de-escalate” and he ordered personnel to no longer carry firearms.
“Not 1,200, but a handful, really a small few, were armed,” McCarthy said
The announcement of the withdrawal follows a formal request Friday from Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser for Trump to remove all military from the city. Bowser stressed in a Thursday press conference that “the very first thing is we want the military – we want troops from out-of-state out of Washington, DC.”
Bowser said the units were “inflaming” and “adding to the grievances” of people protesting the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died while being taken into custody by Minneapolis police officers.
“The protestors have been peaceful, and last night, the Metropolitan Police Department did not make a single arrest,” Bowser wrote in a letter to the President, adding that she has ended the state of emergency in DC related to the protests. “Therefore, I am requesting that you withdraw all extraordinary law enforcement and military presence from Washington, DC.”
Trump has touted a law-and-order message and threatened to send in military troops to quell protests in other states, but most governors have been opposed. DC’s status as a district, not a state, allows the President, and in turn the federal government, more leeway. Combined, at least 5,800 troops, agents, and officers have taken to the streets of the District, along with the active duty troops were stationed just outside the city of 700,000.
Trump’s threat to use active duty troops sparked widespread anger and scathing criticism from former senior military officials who said they were “outraged,” “sickened” and “troubled” at the idea of deploying active duty military in US cities and about Trump’s use of the National Guard and law enforcement to violently disperse peaceful protestors in front of the White House.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley have been caught in the blowback, with Esper breaking publicly with Trump over the President’s willingness to use military force in American cities.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Veronic Stracqualursi, Ryan Browne and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report