WASHINGTON — President Trump said Sunday that he had ordered the National Guard to start the process of withdrawing from the District of Columbia, ‘‘now that everything is under perfect control,’’ as tens of thousands of people spent the weekend in the city, protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
In a tweet, the president warned that the Guard members could return. ‘‘They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed. Far fewer protesters showed up last night than anticipated!’’ he said.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy confirmed later Sunday that all out-of-state National Guard members would be withdrawn from the nation’s capital within 48 to 72 hours and all active-duty US troops who had been put on alert outside the city earlier in the week had gone home. He said officials were working on a plan to deactivate D.C. National Guard members but expected they would still help local police and federal law enforcement in the coming days.
‘‘Over the course of these last 48 hours, the National Guard, as well as our interagency partners working with [D.C.] Chief of Police Peter Newsham, looked at the trends, saw that it had become very peaceful in nature, and started to develop a plan for withdrawal of first out-of-state National Guardsmen supporting the D.C. Guard — and then how do we get on a glide path to turning off the D.C. Guard,’’ McCarthy said in a call with reporters.
The drawdown marks a de-escalation in a military presence that prompted rebukes from high-profile retired officers, including former defense secretary Jim Mattis and three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, who criticized the president for wanting to use the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy active-duty troops in an American city without sufficient cause.
D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, had criticized the Trump administration for tapping National Guard members from 11 states and federal law enforcement officials from agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Protection, and the Drug Enforcement Administration to patrol the city’s streets, at times without identifying insignia, after May 31 demonstrations in the city grew violent with episodes of looting and arson.
Bowser had asked the federal government to deploy the D.C. Guard, which answers to the president because D.C. is not a state, but characterized the Trump administration’s outsize response as an overreaction that could further inflame the situation nationally.
The Trump administration deployed some 5,240 National Guard members to the city, roughly equivalent to the number of American troops in Iraq, in addition to amassing 1,600 additional active-duty forces at bases outside the nation’s capital and bringing in a phalanx of federal law enforcement agents. Critics accused Trump of mounting the mass response for political purposes ahead of the 2020 election as he tweeted the Nixon-era phrase ‘‘Law and Order!’’ repeatedly on Twitter.
Initially, Trump had wanted the Guard members to be armed, and a small contingent of about a dozen did patrol monuments with weapons, even as most took on support roles without their firearms. But Defense Secretary Mark Esper later ordered the Guard members to disarm entirely without consulting the White House. Midweek, Esper announced that he was not in favor of using the Insurrection Act and was beginning to withdraw active-duty forces, a move that angered Trump.
‘‘We came right up to the edge of bringing active troops here and we didn’t,’’ McCarthy said.
He said the Pentagon purposefully did not bring the active-duty forces that were put on alert into the city because officials didn’t want to invoke the Insurrection Act.
‘‘We knew if we went to that escalation, it would be very difficult,’’ he said. Now, he said, ‘‘all active components have been turned off at this time.’’
As Army Secretary, McCarthy oversaw the D.C. Guard and the National Guard units brought in from other states on behalf of the president. He estimated the crowd size of Saturday’s protests in D.C. at 45,000 people. McCarthy is due to testify before the House this week to discuss the events in the capital after Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to appear.
McCarthy on Sunday defended the large-scale military presence ordered by Trump in the capital in recent days. He said the city’s ‘‘security elements’’ were almost overwhelmed during the May 31 events, noting that buildings were damaged, defaced and set afire, and that people tried to get over the fence of the White House. He said five Guard members were hit with bricks.
‘‘We had soldiers hurt. We had our national symbols . . . defaced. You had people trying to get over the fence on the North Lawn,’’ McCarthy said. ‘‘There was a lot of confusion in not knowing just what we were dealing with, as you saw the intensity build.’’
Major General William Walker, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said even though 5,240 Guard members were put on duty in D.C., on a given day only about 1,500 were on the streets, because soldiers had to sleep, train, and go through medical screenings.
Walker said the large presence was justified to protect federal monuments in particular. ‘‘Think about if something would have happened to the Dr. King memorial. Just let that process, what that might have done to exacerbate the situation, or the African American Museum,’’ he said.
‘‘What we could not have was a situation that would throw additional fuel on a flame,’’ Walker said.
National Guard members have faced criticism for their involvement in an incident near the White House on June 1, when federal authorities forcibly removed demonstrators from Lafayette Square so Trump could cross the street and take photos with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. The basement of the church had burned during protests the night before.
The Guard members have no law enforcement authority on their own and were there backing up the US Park Police, Walker said. The Guard members weren’t armed with tear gas and therefore couldn’t have used it, he said.
Asked what prompted the protesters to be cleared, McCarthy said: ‘‘I don’t know what ultimately triggered the Park Police to make the clearing.’’
After initially denying using tear gas to clear the square, a Park Police spokesman acknowledged using chemical agents similar to tear gas against protesters there.
The Pentagon has faced criticism for the behavior on June 1 of two helicopters from the D.C. Guard, which hovered over demonstrators and blasted them with gusty rotor wash from the aircraft. The D.C. Guard suspended all helicopter flight operations as a result, and Esper ordered a command investigation into the incidents.
McCarthy said he gave the order for the D.C. Guard’s helicopters to ‘‘observe and report’’ during demonstrations last Monday night. He said the investigation would reveal more about the incident early last week.