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Lawmakers want must-pass defense bill to protect protesters from the military

Joe Gould
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Lawmakers want must-pass defense bill to protect protesters from the military

WASHINGTON―Outraged Democrats plan to use the massive defense budget and policy bill to fight President Donald Trump’s push to use the U.S. military to quell days of riots, and they may seek defense cuts to do it.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a senior Senate Armed Services Committee member, announced Tuesday he will introduce an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to prevent the use of military force against American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights under the Constitution.

“We can provide that no funding can be used by the DoD to marshal force against protesters or American citizens. We essentially can defund activities like that, and if you do, they don’t happen,” Kaine said in a video announcement.

The remarks came as Trump said he would also use active-duty military forces to “dominate” U.S. cities and stop protesters against police brutality and racial injustice―comments that raised significant concerns among lawmakers and administration critics. It also comes as the Senate committee is set to consider its draft of the NDAA next week with the House Armed Services Committee to follow next month.

Observers have suggested the Democrat-led House would be the most likely venue for action, triggering pushback from the Republican-led Senate and a thorny defense funding debate that delays the bill.

“The risk may be another lengthy budget stand-off that possibly won’t be resolved until after the 2020 election,” Capital Alpha Partners defense analyst Byron Callan said in a note to investors Tuesday.

HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told reporters he wants Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to appear before the committee for a hearing on the issue next week. He stopped short of immediately advocating action in the NDAA.

“[Trump] is talking about going to war with the citizens of the United States of America, and that is troubling,” Smith said in a conference call with reporters. “I am very concerned about what potential role the U.S. military could play in amplifying this misguided rhetoric. … Talking about the United States of America as a battlespace is wrong."

Lawmakers have been critical that Esper and Milley were among aides who accompanied Trump just after peaceful demonstrators were gassed in front of the White House Monday night. After the protesters were cleared, Trump posed for a photograph with a Bible in front of nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was damaged by fire amid protests the night before.

Low-flying U.S. Army Lakota helicopters were also deployed to disperse protesters in the unrest in Washington, D.C., which followed the police killing of George Floyd. During a White House call with state governors earlier in the day, Esper urged them to let National Guard forces “mass and dominate the battlespace” to dissipate the unrest.

One HASC member, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, reacted angrily to the use of military helicopters to quell protests.

“Now this. Abuse of power,” she said in a tweet Monday night. "Good to know before we finalize the NDAA.”

Former SASC staff director and Marine general Arnold Punaro said the role of the active duty military and Milley’s actions “will be a very serious matter and does have the potential to delay the legislation.”

“You already have several very prominent former Army generals speaking out on the subject as well as several Republican senators who disagree with the approach taken last night,” Punaro said.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who also serves on SASC, told Defense News he is working with Kaine on multiple amendments. They would raise them in the committee’s closed markup next week, and if they fail there, on the Senate floor.

“Well, the NDAA is must-pass, which could provide a platform for constraining the misuse of military forces. What astonished and appalled me yesterday was Secretary of Defense Esper referring to our streets as a ‘battlespace’ and peacefully demonstrating citizens as enemies to be targeted by the military,” he said.

Blumenthal said he and Kaine would probably seek to bar funding for the offending activities and not to cut the defense budget as punishment. Asked whether the amendments could be partisan and prolong negotiations, he said he expected Republicans to join the effort to protect Americans’ constitutional rights.

“Rights of free expression are the reason why we have a military,” he said. “To misuse the military because of a loophole in current law should be stopped by a law, like this one, that’s directly relevant.”