WASHINGTON ― Former President Donald Trump’s desire to deploy 10,000 active-duty troops to put down protests in June 2020 that he thought made him “look weak” later led top Pentagon officials to fear he might issue an “illegal order” to troops to help him remain in power despite losing the 2020 election, the House Jan. 6 committee concluded.
Trump’s willingness to misuse the military became acutely apparent after he demanded that then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley accompany him for a June 1, 2020, photo-op outside a church a block from the White House after police cleared Lafayette Square using tear gas and beatings. Protesters there and across the country had been marching to express outrage over the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police, whose actions were captured on video.
Esper, in an April 2022 deposition before the House select committee, said he realized immediately that his presence at Trump’s display had been a mistake. “I thought it was inappropriate that I was there, and I know Gen. Milley felt the same. It was particularly so for Gen. Milley, being a uniformed officer.”
He issued a statement to that effect, and on June 3 in a news conference told reporters that he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act to allow the use of active-duty troops against the Black Lives Matter protesters, as Trump wanted. That immediately drew a summons to the White House.
“He was quite upset and yelling,” Esper told the committee. “He thought that I took away his authority, that I was acting as president and that I took away his authority to invoke the Insurrection Act.”
As a result of those experiences, military officials were worried that putting troops on the ground seven months later, on Jan. 6, 2021, apart from the “optics” of the military being deployed during the final phase of a transfer of presidential power, could result in Trump issuing an “illegal order” to use them in a last-gasp attempt to stay in office.
District of Columbia officials, acting on Trump’s call for a “wild” protest in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and the resulting social media chatter among extremist groups, on Dec. 31, 2020, asked for National Guard troops to staff Metro subway stops and block traffic at intersections. But Pentagon officials preferred not to deploy any troops at all and said that if they did end up agreeing to the request, no troops would be permitted closer to the U.S. Capitol complex than Ninth Street, nearly a mile away.
“The select committee recognizes that some at the [Defense Department] had genuine concerns, counseling caution, that President Trump might give an illegal order to use the military in support of his efforts to overturn the election,” the report states. It points out that Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller had told lawmakers in May 2021 testimony that he feared “the president would invoke the Insurrection Act to politicize the military in an antidemocratic manner” and that “no such thing was going to occur on my watch.”
Their fears of a coup attempt turned out to be well-founded. Knowing the military was not going to support his efforts, Trump instead turned to the mob he had assembled at a rally near the White House on Jan. 6 to march to the Capitol and pressure his own vice president into voiding his election loss and letting Trump remain in power. Even after he had been told that many of his followers in the rally crowd were armed, Trump nevertheless intended to accompany them to the Capitol, according to the committee, to get what he wanted.
And as his mob assaulted police to force their way into the building, military officials’ reluctance to deploy troops wound up delaying getting the insurrection under control.
“While the delay seems unnecessary and unacceptable, it was the byproduct of military processes, institutional caution, and a revised deployment approval process. We have no evidence that the delay was intentional,” the report states. “Likewise, it appears that none of the individuals involved understood what President Trump planned for January 6th, and how he would behave during the violence.”
Trump, despite losing the election by 7 million votes nationally and 306-232 in the Electoral College, became the first president in more than two centuries of elections to refuse to hand over power peacefully. His incitement of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol ― his last-ditch attempt to remain in office ― led to the deaths of five people, including a police officer, the injury of 140 other officers and four police suicides.
Nevertheless, Trump remains the dominant figure in the Republican Party and has already declared his candidacy to seek the presidency again in 2024.
In statements on his personal social media platform, Trump has continued to lie about the election and the Jan. 6 committee’s work, calling it a “hoax” similar to previous investigations into his 2016 campaign’s acceptance of Russian assistance and his attempted extortion of Ukraine into helping his 2020 campaign.