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Active Duty Troops On Standby Outside Washington, D.C., Being Sent Back To Home Bases

All of the approximately 1,600 active duty soldiers who were airlifted to military bases near Washington, D.C., earlier this week are being ordered back to their home postings, according the Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

The troops were mobilized to be deployed in the nation's capital if President Trump invoked the 1807 Insurrection Act, as he had threatened to do in a White House Rose Garden statementhe made Monday evening.

Although the mobilized soldiers never entered the capital, they were part of a show of force by federal authorities in response to demonstrations triggered by the May 24 death of a black Minneapolis man, George Floyd, after a white policeman pushed a knee on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Some 700 of the mobilized troops from the 82nd Airborne Division already went back to their base at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Thursday. The remaining 900 were expected to leave bases in Maryland and Virginia "as soon as possible" for Fort Bragg and Fort Drum, N.Y.

Their return was to have started on Wednesday, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper reversed a departure order from Army Secretary McCarthy after meeting Wednesday afternoon with the president.

The defense secretary had publicly declared earlier Wednesday that he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act, which authorizes the use of federal troops for domestic disturbances.

"The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. "We are not in one of those situations now."

Esper had come under fire for advising state governors in a Monday conference call with Trump to "occupy the battle space" while dealing with protesters. He was also criticized for accompanying Trump in a walk that evening across Lafayette Square, where protesters who had been peacefully occupying that park adjacent to the White House had just been violently ousted by riot police.

On Friday, hundreds of former national security officials, diplomats and retired military flag officers signed astrongly worded statement denouncing Trump's calls for using of the military to squelch protests.

"Many of us served across the globe, including in war zones, diplomats and military officers working side by side to advance American interests and values," wrote the signatories, among them former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich and 21 retired generals. "We called out violations of human rights and the authoritarian regimes that deployed their military against their own citizens."

"There is no role for the U.S. military in dealing with American citizens exercising their constitutional right to free speech, however uncomfortable that speech may be for some," the statement concluded. "Ultimately, the issues that have driven the protests cannot be addressed by our military."

During an appearance Friday in the Rose Garden where Trump spoke for several minutes about the ongoing protests, he did not repeat his earlier threat to deploy active duty military forces to states.

"I hope they also use our National Guard, call me, we'll be for them so fast their heads will spin," Trump said, referring to state governors who have exclusive authority to deploy their National Guard forces. "You have to dominate the streets, you can't let what's happening happen."

Because Washington, D.C., is the only place in the nation that has no governor, Trump has been able to deploy Guard units there from other parts of the country as well as from the District of Columbia.

In a letter sent to Trump Thursday evening, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser objected to the ongoing deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard troops in the city.

"I am requesting that you withdraw all extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence from Washington, D.C.," Bowser wrote. "We are well equipped to handle large demonstrations and First Amendment activities."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.