Trump is unlikely to deploy military in Minneapolis unrest, but has the authority to do so
By DAN LAMOTHE AND MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: May 29, 2020
President Donald Trump's threat Friday to involve the military more deeply in the response to protests and looting in Minneapolis is unlikely to come to fruition, but he has the authority to deploy active-duty forces or National Guardsmen under his control, defense officials and national security experts said.
The threat came in a pair of tweets from the White House after protests over the death of a handcuffed black man in police custody this week escalated into violence overnight. Trump tweeted as scenes of a police station and other buildings burning in Minneapolis aired on television amid calls for the officer's arrest.
"These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won't let that happen," Trump tweeted, referring to the man who died after an officer was shown on video pressing his knee into Floyd's neck. "Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!"
The use of the word "thugs" has racist connotations, and Twitter labeled the message as a violation of the messaging service's rules for "glorifying violence." It was paired with another presidential tweet in which Trump said that he "can't stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis," and blamed local officials there for a "total lack of leadership."
Trump warned that if the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, doesn't "get his act together and bring the City under control," he will "send in the National Guard & get the job done right."
The president did not acknowledge that Walz, a Democrat and retired command sergeant major in the National Guard, already had activated guardsmen to assist on Thursday.
Trump's reaction immediately pulled the Pentagon deeper into a crisis that already has racial and political dynamics.
Trump's tweets also had parallels to his comments about the southern border in 2018, when he suggested that if migrants threw rocks at U.S. troops dispatched there, American forces should treat the rocks as though they were rifles. After a backlash, Trump said the migrants would not be shot.
Walz's activation of guardsmen to provide support to police in Minnesota follows similar actions by other governors amid unrest prompted by the death of black men at the hands of police, including in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and in Baltimore in 2015.
In those cases, the guardsmen operated under state orders and did not participate in law enforcement in accordance with the federal Posse Comitatus Act, which limits the use of the military against American citizens under many circumstances.
But Trump could order federal troops to Minnesota under laws, such as the Insurrection Act, which allows presidents to deploy the military domestically during emergencies without the permission of a governor, said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
Such actions are rare but have occurred before, most recently in 1992 amid rioting in Los Angeles after the police beating of Rodney King was recorded on video. Then-President George H.W. Bush deployed 4,000 active-duty soldiers and Marines to complement thousands of National Guardsmen and police.
"This is one of those areas where I think the law is actually a lot scarier than we might like it to be," Vladeck said. "It's practical and political constraints that are the political checks" on power.
Vladeck added that if the president deploys forces under federal orders, he would be responsible for whatever happens.
"Right now, if things go well he can say that he told Walz to do it, and if things go badly, he can say, 'It's all Walz's fault,' " Vladeck said.
A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said he had seen no indication of imminent steps to federalize the National Guard under Trump's control. While the president has the authority to take control of guardsmen, that would likely only occur if it was clear that authorities in Minnesota were unable to bring the situation under control, the official said.
A spokeswoman for the Pentagon's top officer, Gen. Mark Milley, declined to comment on any conversations that Milley has had with Trump on the issue.
"Conversations between the President and the Chairman are private and confidential," the spokeswoman, Air Force Col. DeDe Halfhill, said in a statement. "The Minnesota National Guard is mobilized under the authorities of the Governor to protect life, preserve property and the right to peacefully demonstrate. Their key objective is to ensure fire departments are able to respond to calls."
The Minnesota National Guard said in a news release on Friday that Walz had activated about 500 guardsmen. Some of them were on duty on Thursday night, and others were expected to be "in position to support rotating missions" by Friday morning, the Guard said.
"The National Guard will provide support to civil authorities as long as directed in order to ensure the safety of people and property," the Guard said.
Peter Feaver, a scholar on civil-military relations at Duke University, said Trump's warning on Twitter was likely to result in a planning process among government officials but doesn't constitute a presidential order.
Feaver noted that Bush employed active-duty troops to assist in Louisiana when local authorities were overwhelmed by the scale of the destruction following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But state authorities rejected White House requests to put the National Guard there under federal control. The situation in Minnesota, Feaver said, does not appear to have reached that same scale as that following Katrina.
"It does feel a little more politically opportunistic for the president to insert himself in this," especially when the governor is not requesting it, Feaver said.
"The use of the military by federal authorities in domestic situations, while it's precedented, it also tends to be very controversial," he said. "It's a politically fraught move.