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Loyalty to Trump erodes over his truculence on use of military

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was one of the

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was one of the officials who joined President Donald Trump on his way to the church photo-op Monday. Credit: AP / Patrick Semansky

Will Esper be Penta-gone?

There are signs of a crumbling around the edges of the Donald Trump presidency. His thinking out loud about unleashing the U.S. military in cities roiled by unrest has set off a wave of angst that's reached beyond those he calls the "deep state" and the "fake media" and the "far left Democrats."

In an extraordinary dissent, Defense Secretary Mark Esper — brought in by Trump last year to be a pliant Pentagon chief — went public with his opposition to using active-duty military forces for law enforcement in containing current street protests. Esper said the Insurrection Act that Trump has threatened to invoke should be used “only in the most urgent and dire of situations.” Esper declared, “We are not in one of those situations now.” The National Guard is best suited to back up local law enforcement, he said. Esper’s comments reflected alarm among top Pentagon officials that the military would be seen as participating in a move toward martial law, The New York Times reported.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a message to top military commanders on Wednesday implicitly defending the constitutional right to protest. “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America — we will stay true to that oath and the American people,” Milley said.

Esper also expanded on his regrets for participating in Trump's Bible-waving photo-op Monday night at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House. “Look, I do everything I can to try and stay apolitical and try to stay out of situations that may appear political,” Esper told NBC News. When he joined officials walking with the president to the church after forces drove peaceful protesters from the area with pepper spray and flash-bang grenades, Esper said he thought the plan was to talk to troops and view a vandalized bathroom. "I didn’t know where I was going,” he said.

Esper isn't refusing the president's orders. After a White House meeting, he reversed an earlier Pentagon decision to return a couple hundred active-duty soldiers sent to the Washington, D.C., region back to their home bases. But his break with Trump may have him on thin ice. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told a news briefing that if Trump "loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I’m sure you all will be the first to know … As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper and should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future.”

Trump said in a Fox News Radio interview that he's gotten expressions of support for the church visit from evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress. But an elder statesman of the religious conservative movement, televangelist Pat Robertson, broke with Trump over the notion of sending the military onto America's streets. "You just don't do that, Mr. President. It isn't cool!" Robertson said on his "The 700 Club" program.

Trump sent out a tweet in an unusually pleading tone with three of the Republican senators — Ben Sasse of Nebraska, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Susan Collins of Maine — who criticized the use of force on peaceful protests against racism and police brutality to make way for his photo-op. "You got it wrong!" Trump said. Still, other Republicans cheered him on, including Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who wrote a Times op-ed: "Send in the troops."

Mattis: We have no 'mature leadership'

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has kept criticism of Trump veiled since their falling out, ripped the president in a statement Wednesday, accusing him of deliberately trying to divide Americans. Mattis objected to his threats of military force on American streets, and he praised those demanding justice nationwide following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote in the statement for The Atlantic. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership."

Mattis even suggested the instinct to divide smacked of Nazism, recalling that U.S. troops preparing for D-Day in World War II were told: "The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was 'Divide and Conquer.' Our American answer is 'In Union there is Strength.’ ”

"We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society," wrote Mattis, who left the Pentagon in 2018. "This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.” He said protesters are right to seek equal justice under the law — “It is a wholesome and unifying demand."

Mattis said the sight of troops participating in driving peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square on Monday night was appalling, as was Esper's presence with Trump afterward at St. John's Church.

“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” wrote the retired Marine general, who Trump affectionately called "Mad Dog" when he recruited him.

Trump cries bunk on bunker story

Trump decided on the church visit while steaming over news reports that revealed the Secret Service rushed him to an underground bunker on Friday evening after a handful of protesters breached temporary fences outside the Executive Mansion. The episode inspired widespread mockery by the president's detractors, including trending hashtags such as #bunkerboy on Twitter.

It wasn't until Wednesday, while speaking to Fox News Radio's Brian Kilmeade, that the president invented a new story on how he happened to be in the bunker.

"It was much more for an inspection. There was no problem during the day," Trump said. "I've gone down two or three times, all for inspection."

Why the sudden "inspection"? Because, Trump said, he was told "maybe some time you're going to need it."

Meanwhile, McEnany framed the church visit as a profile in courage, comparing it with such "leadership moments" such as Britain's World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill surveying bombed-out sites in London after a Nazi German blitz.

Janison: Trump up for grabs

The bidding has begun for who'd like to host Trump's Republican National Convention speech, and maybe the whole party shebang, now that the original site, North Carolina, refuses to guarantee if it will let in a big crowd in the year of the coronavirus.

Newsday's Dan Janison writes that having others vie for his favor seems to please Trump. Republicans reportedly are eyeing Nashville, Tennessee, as an alternative. Trump is running way ahead in that state. There also has been talk of moving the convention to Arizona.

Trump keeps chafing under local authorities' pandemic precautions. But he's reluctant to defy them outright. As for the organizers, the prospect of moving the whole event two months before the convention would be daunting for a variety of reasons. "Should the governor allow more than 10 people in a room, we still hope to conduct the official business of the convention in Charlotte,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Mike Reed.

Doctor: There's more of Trump

The White House physician on Wednesday afternoon revealed the results of Trump's latest physical exams. Since last year, Trump has gained a pound, with the scale reading 244. That keeps him in the obese category.

But Dr. Sean Conley wrote that Trump "remains healthy" and experienced no side effects from hydroxychloroquine, which the president claimed he took for two weeks as unproven prophylaxis for the coronavirus after promoting the drug widely. Otherwise, there was little change except for improved cholesterol readings. He still takes the same medications, including low-dose aspirin, Propecia to forestall hair loss and a statin pill to help lower his cholesterol.

Obama: Stay hopeful for change

Former President Barack Obama on Wednesday personally thanked protesters demonstrating across the nation over the death of Floyd, and he urged young African Americans to "feel hopeful even as you may feel angry" because he feels that change is coming.

His most extensive remarks on the turmoil came in a virtual town hall event organized by My Brother's Keeper Alliance, a part of the Obama Foundation.

"We have seen in the last several weeks, last few months, the kinds of epic changes in events in our country that are as profound as anything that I've seen in my lifetime," Obama said.

In his conclusion, he said, "Just remember, this country was founded on protest: It is called the American Revolution, and every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable. And we should all be thankful for folks who are willing, in a peaceful, disciplined way, to be out there making a difference."

Coronavirus news

The nation's coronavirus death toll is above 107,000. See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Joe Biden is within 100 delegates of locking up the Democratic presidential nomination after winning primaries in seven states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday. Primaries next Tuesday in Georgia and West Virginia could put him over the top.
  • Snapchat's parent company said it would stop pointing users to Trump on the social media app, saying it did not want to "amplify" those who "incite racial violence." The account isn't banned, but it will no longer be promoted on Snapchat's Discover tab, which boosts content from politicians. The action follows Twitter's move to slap warnings on a handful of Trump tweets.
  • In 2017, Trump, via son-in-law Jared Kushner, encouraged his buddies at the National Enquirer to investigate the debunked conspiracy theory that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a young woman staffer when he was a congressman, the Daily Beast reported. The Enquirer put a reporting team on the story and found nothing. Trump still won't stop spreading accusation. "I always felt that he got away with murder," Trump said in the Fox radio interview.
  • Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended the need for the Russia investigation. But he said that if he knew then what he knows now, he would not have signed his now-infamous application to continue surveillance on an ex-junior campaign aide to Trump, Carter Page.
  • After Trump said he was giving up residence in New York, Florida elections records show, he originally tried to register to vote in the Sunshine State while claiming his “legal residence” was in the nation's capital, The Washington Post reports. A month passed before Trump filed a second voter registration application, this time with the address of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.
  • A Fox News poll finds Biden leading by 4 points in Arizona, a state Trump won by 3.5 points in 2016.

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