Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday called the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman "a horrible crime" and called for the officers involved to "be held accountable for his murder."
It was the first time that the secretary addressed Floyd's death, which occurred more than a week ago on May 25, and the nationwide protests over racial inequality in America ever since.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper gives aa press conference at the Pentagon, June 3, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Defense Secretary Mark Esper gives aa press conference at the Pentagon, June 3, 2020, in Arlington, Va.ABC News
"With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd, for me and the department," Esper said during a Pentagon briefing. "Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it."
The secretary also said that he does not currently support the deployment of active duty military troops on city streets, as President Donald Trump has threatened to order, saying the National Guard is best suited for providing support to local law enforcement.
Troops load up into personnel carriers to take them toward the city from the Joint Force Headquarters of the D.C. National Guard on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC.Troops load up into personnel carriers to take them toward the city from the Joint Force Headquarters of the D.C. National Guard on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC.Drew Angerer/Getty Images
He called the use of active duty forces "a matter of last resort" and said he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows the president to deploy active duty troops within the United States to carry out law enforcement duties that are not normally allowed.
"We are not in one of those situations now," Esper said.
Wednesday afternoon, a U.S. official said that a portion of the 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne that were sent to the Washington area to be on standby in case they were needed in the nation's capital are being sent back to Fort Bragg.
The Pentagon confirmed on the record Tuesday night that Task Force 504, an infantry battalion from the 82nd Airborne, had flown up to the area to stage in case their services were requested. There was also a separate military police headquarters unit that came up separately from Fort Bragg and it appears they are still on orders to the Washington area.
The secretary has faced criticism for his handling of the military's role in responding to the civil unrest that swept the country after Floyd's killing, including using the term "battle space" to describe protests in city streets and participating in a photo op with the president in front of St. John's Church which had been set on fire after riots turned violent over the weekend.
President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church, June 1, 2020. Second from right is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley.President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church, June 1, 2020. Second from right is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley. Patrick Semansky/AP
Before the president, Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and other senior administration officials walked to the church on Monday, police used smoke canisters and pepper balls on peaceful protesters standing in and around Lafayette Park across from the White House to push them back, allowing the president to get to the church.
Once there, Trump did not inspect the damage or make remarks but held up a Bible for pictures.
Esper told reporters on Wednesday that he was "not aware of law enforcement's plans for the park ... but they had to take what actions I assume they felt was necessary given what they face but I was not briefed on the plans and was not aware of what they were doing."
He declined to condemn the police's method or say whether he regretted participating in the event, saying instead that while he knew he was going to the church, he "was not aware of a photo op ... happening" and had aimed to thank Guard troops who were assisting law enforcement in the park.
Demonstrators kneel in front of a line of police officers during a protest for the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington.Demonstrators kneel in front of a line of police officers during a protest for the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, near the White House in Washington.Evan Vucci/AP
"I do everything I can to try stay apolitical and try and stay out of situations that may appear political and sometimes I'm successful at doing that, and sometimes I'm not as successful," the secretary said.
He expressed a similar sentiment to the force in a memo on Tuesday night which largely focused on the military's role in defending the Constitution and staying apolitical "in these turbulent days." That same night, the Washington Post reported that senior Pentagon officials had directed the military service chiefs to keep quiet about the issues, despite some expressing interest in responding.
Asked about that report, Esper said, "What happened to George Floyd happens way too often in this country. And most times, we don't speak about these matters as a department, but as events have unfolded over the past few days, it became very clear that this is becoming a very combustible national issue."
He said that he had made the determination that he wanted to send "a clear message to the department about our approach" and to "set the tone" before giving other DOD leaders the space to express their thoughts.
Esper also responded to the criticism he received for urging states "to dominate the battle space" during a Monday call with President Trump and governors -- a recording of which was obtained by ABC News.
Two retired four-star generals took the rare step of publicly condemning Esper's comments, arguing the language was inappropriate to describe the current situation. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns that the secretary's words could be seen as laying the groundwork for the invocation of the Insurrection Act, according to a former senior administration official.
Esper said the term is "what we routinely use to describe a bounded area of operations," adding, "It's not a phrase focused on people and certainly not on our fellow Americans, as some have suggested."
"In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we are militarizing the issue," he said.
While the president has repeatedly threatened the use of the military to quell protests that have turned violent, so far it has been the task for roughly 30,000 National Guard members to assist state and local law enforcement operations, not active duty troops.