Army leaders said Tuesday that they have not received any requests to use active-duty or National Guard troops for possible civil unrest surrounding the presidential election next month, but are ready to do so if called on.
Gen. James McConville, chief of the Army, said he's received no guidance to conduct any specific training to prepare soldiers for potential deployments if election protests become violent. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said no government agencies have asked for military troops.
“We don’t police American streets,” McCarthy said, but he added that soldiers will help law enforcement protect federal property.
Their comments come amid worries that frustration with election results, vote-counting delays and other issues could trigger protests and prompt military involvement.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat and former senior Pentagon official, said in separate remarks to reporters that questions still remain about the potential for street violence on or after Election Day and the possibility that President Donald Trump could order some sort of military intervention.
“I don’t think we’ll see wide-scale violence, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw limited skirmishes,” she said. She said that is why she and a fellow Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, pressed defense leaders on whether the military will have any role in the election process.
In June, active-duty forces were moved to the outskirts of Washington but never crossed into the city after protests became violent in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. While Trump considered invoking the rarely used Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops for law enforcement on domestic soil, military leaders were opposed to the idea and it never happened.
Thousands of National Guard troops, however, were used in Washington and in states across the nation to help law enforcement. Guard forces are controlled by state governors and are routinely used to provide aid in natural disasters.
Guard leaders recently told The Associated Press they have designated military police units in two states to serve as rapid-reaction forces to respond quickly if states request help with civil unrest.
In response to questions from Slotkin and Sherrill about possible military roles around the election, Defense Secretary Mark Esper provided brief written responses that offered few details beyond saying, “The U.S. military has acted, and will continue to act, in accordance with the Constitution and the law.”
Slotkin and Sherril released Esper's answers on Tuesday, contrasting them with the more specific responses they received in August from Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military,” Milley wrote. “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military. I foresee no role for the U.S armed forces in this process.”
Milley’s tone reflected the longstanding view of military leaders that the military should stay out of politics and that troops are sworn to protect the country and uphold the Constitution.
The Army leaders on Tuesday also addressed other issues surrounding possible unrest.
McCarthy said Esper is having conversations with the Department of Homeland Security about the use of military-type camouflage uniforms by DHS law enforcement personnel. The wide use of military uniforms and equipment led to confusion during the unrest about the affiliation of the agents who confronted protesters on the streets.
In other comments to Pentagon reporters, McCarthy and McConville said that they are having discussions about shortening Army troop deployments to improve the health of the force, which has been strained by nearly two decades of war. McConville said changes will take some time to implement.
“We’re taking a look at the rotation deployments, and we're working with commanders to see how we can accomplish the mission in innovative ways,” he said. “We're going to see that coming out over the next two years.”
The move to shorten deployments is part of a broader effort to make the well-being of soldiers and their families the Army’s top priority, overtaking combat readiness and weapons modernization. Overall, the Army wants soldiers to be able to spend more time becoming cohesive units in part to help reduce suicides, which have spiked this year.
To free up more time for soldiers to spend at home, McCarthy said the Army is reducing some training requirements and increasing focus on smaller unit instruction and leader training, while scaling back some of the larger brigade and battalion live-fire exercises.
Tuesday also marked McConville's first public appearance since most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went into quarantine last week after they were in a Pentagon meeting with a Coast Guard leader who tested positive for COVID-19.
McConville said he's been “screened and tested multiple times," and after another negative test Tuesday morning, he was cleared to go to the Pentagon and appear at the news conference. He and other Army leaders sat socially distant during the event and wore masks whenever they were not speaking.
Other military chiefs who were at that meeting and exposed to the virus continue to work from home, following CDC standards for quarantine. The assistant commandant of the Marine Corps., Gen. Gary L. Thomas, was in the meeting and tested positive last Wednesday. He experienced mild symptoms and was isolating at home.