The National Guard will be deployed on to the streets of Washington this week as the city braces for potentially violent clashes when supporters of Donald Trump descend on the nation’s capital to protest the outcome of the presidential election.
Mr Trump has urged his followers to protest the results of the US election on Tuesday and Wednesday as Congress prepares to certify the electoral college results, sparking fears of a repeat of the unrest seen on the city’s streets in November and December.
The request for a National Guard presence from Muriel Bowser, Washington’s Democratic mayor, comes amid heightened tensions in the nation’s capital as Mr Trump wages an unprecedented campaign to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in November’s election.
Some figures in the defence establishment fear Mr Trump will use violence at the protests this week as a pretext to invoke the Insurrection Act, as he has proposed in the past, which would allow him to order the military to quell any unrest.
Those concerns prompted all 10 living former secretaries of defence — including Republicans Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — to caution against any military involvement in election disputes.
“Efforts to involve the US armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory,” the former top Pentagon officials wrote in The Washington Post on Sunday.
They added: “Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”
About 340 members of the District of Columbia National Guard, a reserve of citizen-soldiers who serve on a part-time basis, will be on duty in the city following a request for their presence to the Pentagon from Ms Bowser.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Ms Bowser urged Washington residents not to engage in conflict and to avoid confrontations with anyone who appeared to be “looking for a fight”.
The mayor also asked people to avoid the downtown areas of the city on Tuesday and Wednesday, including streets around the National Mall. Robert Contee, DC chief of police, warned that carrying firearms in the city would “not be tolerated”.
Previous demonstrations by pro-Trump protesters, including far-right groups such as the Proud Boys, led to violence on the streets of Washington late last year. Several African churches in the city had Black Lives Matter banners ripped down and multiple people were stabbed and hospitalised.
The former defence secretaries also warned in their letter about the dangers to US national security of impeding a transition of power to the Biden administration. President-elect Joe Biden has complained that Trump-elected officials are obstructing the handover process and that there has been “limited co-operation” with his transition team from the Pentagon.
Mr Trump’s presidency has been marked by periods of protest across US cities, throughout which he has repeatedly threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy military forces in states where he felt authorities had not quelled protests.
Invoking that act could allow Mr Trump to call out not only the National Guard but also the regular military — in most likelihood military police — and send them wherever he wanted.
The summer saw a wave of protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with police and federal forces sometimes using aggressive tactics — including the use of rubber bullets and tear gas — to disperse protesters.
General Mark Milley, the top uniformed US military official, apologised in June for accompanying Mr Trump on a walk to a church near the White House immediately after police cleared the area of peaceful protesters by firing tear gas canisters into the crowd.
Mr Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said at the time that his presence had created a “perception of the military being involved in US politics”.
The general has since joined a number of senior military officials in publicly stating that the military has no role in determining the outcome of US elections.
In November, Mr Trump fired former defence secretary Mark Esper after he disagreed publicly with the president in June and said that active duty military personnel should not be sent into US cities to quell protests.
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