Letters From an American

What Happens When Our President Declares He Needs to Dominate the Battle Space?

Is Our Nation a Battleground Where There Will Be Winners and Losers?

What Happens When Our President Declares He Needs to Dominate the Battle Space?

June 1, 2020

Trump began the day with a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Shortly after, he called American state governors. In the 55-minute call, he told them, “You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.” He told the governors, “You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.” “You know when other countries watch this, they’re watching this, the next day wow, they’re really a push over. And we can’t be a push over. And we have all the resources—it’s not like we don’t have the resources. So, I don’t know what you’re doing.” “It’s a movement, if you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse…. The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak.”

He said: “We will activate Bill Barr and activate him very strongly.” He said: “Washington [D.C.] was under very good control, but we’re going to have it under much more control. We’re going to pull in thousands of people.” Barr later directed the FBI to send riot teams to Miami and Washington.

Also on the call were Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Esper echoed Trump, telling the governors in a discussion of American protesters in American cities: “we need to dominate the battle space.”

On the call, Trump said he had put Milley in charge of managing the protests. Since by law Milley is an advisor, rather than part of the military chain of command, the Pentagon clarified that he could not lead any military response to the crisis. White House Press Secretary later said he would lead a “central command center in conjunction with the state and local governments.”

This call was recorded and leaked to the press almost immediately.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a former Army captain who now sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was on board with the sentiments in it. He called for Trump to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, which permits the president to override the restriction against using the military in domestic situations in extreme situations. Cotton tweeted: “Anarchy, rioting, and looting needs to end tonight. If local law enforcement is overwhelmed and needs backup, let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division. We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction…. And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.”

Readers pointed out that the concept of “no quarter,” that is, killing those who surrender in a battle, is a war crime. Trump tweeted that Cotton was “100% correct.” Cotton later tried to walk back the comments by resorting to a dictionary definition, but David A. French, a lawyer, military officer, Iraq veteran, and journalist, pointed out that Cotton graduated from Harvard Law School, and certainly knew that military ops defines “no quarter” very clearly, and prohibits it.

Florida Representative Matt Gaetz—the man who wore a gas mask on the floor of Congress to downplay the dangers of coronavirus—tweeted “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do in the Middle East?” Twitter hid the tweet—a tweet from a sitting congressman—as glorifying violence.

A reminder: we do not yet know who is behind the looting and violence, although a number of videos have shown white instigators. The political affiliation of those rioters is not clear, despite the statements of Trump and Attorney General Barr that they are “radical leftists.”

When a journalist today asked a senior White House official what Trump was doing, the official responded: “He’s not handling anything, just typing a bunch of s–t on Twitter.” But things took an ominous turn later in the day.

Twenty-nine states have activated about 70,000 National Guard troops but have not deployed more than a few hundred of them, and no state governor has asked for federal intervention. Nonetheless, Trump, who refused to help the states respond to the coronavirus pandemic, now wants federal troops in those same states. In the Rose Garden this afternoon, he said that if mayors and governors didn’t increase their troop presence, he would send in federal troops. He announced he was deploying “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” to stop the protests in Washington, D.C. and “to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.”

While he was talking, a massive police presence, including officers from the Customs and Border Protection, were clearing peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square with tear gas and flash-bang explosions.

The president concluded his remarks by saying “Now, I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place.” He walked out of the White House to the north side of it, into Lafayette Square, where the protests have been, along with Esper, Attorney General William Barr, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and other White House officials, including Hope Hicks, who apparently hatched the plan to calm Trump’s anger at being made fun of for his stay in the White House bunker. They crossed the park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, a historic site that had briefly been set on fire last night. There, Trump held up a Bible and said: “We have a great country, that’s my thoughts, the greatest country in the world. We will make it even greater, it won’t take long. It’s coming back strong and it will be greater than ever before.”

Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania tweeted: “I want to be super clear about what happened tonight in Washington: The President of the United States deployed tear-gas, rubber bullets and military personnel on peaceful protesters so that he could cross the street for a photo op. There is no excuse.” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon straight up said “the fascist speech Donald Trump just delivered verged on a declaration of war against American citizens. I fear for our country tonight and will not stop defending America against Trump’s assault.”

Esquire writer Charles Pierce notes that since 9-11, the federal government has equipped local police with $4.3 billion in military gear and prepared them for an all-out war on terrorists. In 2014, President Barack Obama tried to stop the transfer of military weapons and equipment to civilian police departments with an executive order, but Trump reversed it. This militarization of the police has created in America’s streets what a government commission in 1968 defined as a “police riot,” in which officers themselves instigate, escalate, or sustain violent confrontations. In addition to attacking protesters, today’s police are singling out journalists for attack. This development is significant because it is a key sign of authoritarian regimes, which try to silence journalists to silence information about their actions.

Tonight General Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, talked to reporters from the streets of Washington. National security specialist Tom Nichols noted: “There is absolutely no reason for the Chairman to be walking the streets right now. This is not even remotely in the tradition of U.S. civil-military relations.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.