In the Rose Garden yesterday evening, President Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military to restore order in the American cities if mayors and governors fail to do it.
In his brief speech, Trump said the appropriate things about the George Floyd case (he called it a “brutal death”) and about the legal process underway in Minneapolis (“justice will be served”). He was also right about the biggest victims of disorder being people living in poor communities, about the mix of Antifa and looters causing the mayhem, and the need to act vigorously to stop it.
The president pretty clearly has the authority to send in the military under the Insurrection Act. It is widely believed that the Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the use of federal troops for domestic law enforcement, but this isn’t true — it prohibits such use only when there isn’t statutory authorization. If the president makes the determination that “unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages” are making it impossible to enforce the laws in a state, he can act.
Invoking this law would not constitute imposing a dictatorship or waging a war on the American people any more than when George H. W. Bush did it during the Los Angeles riots in 1992, when Lyndon Johnson did it during riots in 1968, or when Dwight Eisenhower did it to enforce federal desegregation law in 1957. There is no justice and no liberty without order and the rule of law.
That said, it’s hard to see how Trump could, as a practical matter, invoke the Insurrection Act over the objections of state and local officials. Having hostile and competing authorities trying to police the same out-of-control streets is not a formula for success. The main utility of talking of the Insurrection Act may be in prodding states to be more forceful in their response.
Minnesota called out the National Guard, and Minneapolis, the first city to get hit by these disturbances, has been relatively calm for three straight nights. New York has avoided calling the Guard, and New York City was a shameful festival of rioting and looting Monday night. Cities need to impose early curfews, vigorously enforce them, and call out the National Guard if they have any doubt that the police can’t do the job on their own.
If Trump’s language about “dominating” the streets is inflammatory, the basic point is correct. But the president has failed to rise to the moment with his incendiary tweets and insulting commentary on the performance of local officials.
His performance yesterday was marred by his photo-op in front of St. John’s church. We understand the impulse to show the flag at the historic church after it was set on fire over the weekend, but this jaunt should have been more carefully considered so it involved something more meaningful than waving a Bible in the air. And if it’s true that protestors were cleared away from the church simply to make way for the photo-op (there are conflicting reports about this), it was a petty and foolish use of government authority.
The nation could, if the riots continue, be on the cusp of a full-blown crisis. It’d be much better if our leaders — including the president — acted like it.