Thousands of additional troops in the nation’s capital could be leaving as early as Monday, according to the commander of the DC National Guard.
Maj. Gen. William J. Walker told CNN in an exclusive interview Saturday that the nearly 4,000 additional National Guard forces that have been brought to DC from other states could begin leaving after the weekend.
“They will be redeploying this week. Probably as early as Monday,” said Walker.
The presence of the out-of-state National Guard troops has been a major point of contention between DC officials and the Trump Administration.
Walker said that the approximately 3,900 out-of-state National Guard forces from 11 states had been sought by the Defense Department to help bolster the 1,200-strong DC contingent that had been activated in the face of the unrest and that all the additional number of forces that the Pentagon had determined were required had been sent to DC by the other states.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told CNN in a separate exclusive interview that the possibility of sending out-of-state National Guard troops home is under serious consideration due to the peaceful nature of the ongoing protests.
“Well, we’re looking very hard at that. I think that if we look at the trend that we’re on right now we’re in very good shape and we’re looking at that option very closely,” McCarthy said, saying that the crowds protesting Saturday were large “but very peaceful.”
As Secretary of the Army, McCarthy oversees the DC National Guard due to DC’s unique status, serving the role traditionally carried out by governors in states.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who participated in Saturday’s protest, has repeatedly called on non-DC National Guard personnel to leave the city, writing President Donald Trump and state governors who have sent troops to DC asking for them to be removed.
Walker said that National Guard troops were not involved in using force to clear Lafayette Park Monday night – an action that caused many former military officers to criticize the Trump Administration’s handling of the protests – saying that National Guard personnel held their positions and did not advance on the protesters and emphasizing that National Guard personnel are stationed in order to minimize their interactions with protesters.
“They held the line, they never advanced on the crowd,” Walker said.
While all members of the National Guard have been deputized by federal law enforcement or DC police to allow them to conduct law enforcement actions, Walker stressed that the intent is to only have National Guard interact with protesters as a last resort.
“Drive around, you’ll see the National Guard and what you see is the National Guard in what we call the second row, maybe the third row, so there’s federal agencies, federal law enforcement, United States Park Police, United States Secret Service, then you might see National Guardsmen. So if you get to a Guardsman, a lot has gone wrong,” he added.
The Defense Department is conducting an investigation into the actions of National Guard helicopters that flew low over protesters Monday night, with some saying that the flights were intended to intimidate demonstrators and cause them to disperse.
Asked whether the low overflights were directed by the Pentagon leadership, Walker said they were not, saying the incident is under investigation.
“I have a Joint Task Force Commander, a general that serves under me, and he had the aircraft in the air. I am not a pilot. So I don’t know if that was the, if they were too low. I don’t know if they were too low. Here is what I can tell you, a full investigation is underway right now. It is going to be thorough, it is going to be comprehensive,” he said.
Walker said that active duty troops were not currently needed in Washington, DC, given the situation on the ground, echoing comments made earlier this week by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
A senior defense official told CNN Saturday that the White House wanted to have 10,000 active duty troops on the streets of Washington and other cities earlier this week to quell protesters but Esper and Chairman of the Joint of Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley pushed back at the use of any active duty troops.
The DC National Guard’s Senior Enlisted Adviser told CNN that the Guard forces had a better understanding of the local community than active duty troops and were therefore better placed to respond to civil unrest.
“We know better than the active components that whether you are holding a shield on a lawn, or whether you’re holding the picket sign, we know that that is a family member, a neighbor, a member of our community that’s on both sides,” Command Sgt. Major Michael Brooks said.
“We in no way intend to cause harm, but we did take an oath to defend the Constitution, and our role is to protect our citizens’ right to assemble and protest safely without violence. That’s our narrative,” he added.