Thousands of National Guardsmen on Sunday began withdrawing from the nation’s capital, capping a turbulent week in which officials said the Pentagon came “right up to the edge” of deploying active-duty troops to the streets.
“I have just given an order for our National Guard to start the process of withdrawing from Washington, D.C., now that everything is under perfect control. They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed,” President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday, noting that “far fewer protesters showed up last night than anticipated.”
Over the past 48 hours, officials began developing plans to send home thousands of Guardsmen who had deployed from neighboring states to D.C. since Monday to augment the 1,200 D.C. National Guardsmen helping the local response, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters. Officials decided early in the week that they needed additional forces to respond to a night of violence on Sunday, when crowds defaced national monuments, looted stores and threw bricks and other objects at Guardsmen.
“On Sunday evening, the security elements were almost overwhelmed,” McCarthy said.
Ultimately, the Pentagon did not have to deploy active-duty troops to D.C. to help quash the protests, but “we came right up to the edge” of doing so, McCarthy said. On Monday, the Pentagon ordered 1,600 active-duty soldiers from infantry and military police units, including the 82nd Airborne Division, to the national capital region in case they were needed. All of them have since returned home.
“We didn’t want to do it. The DoD didn’t want to do it. We knew once you went to that escalation it would be very difficult,” McCarthy said, noting that officials “made a lot of phone calls” to get enough Guardsmen from neighboring states to respond to the protests. But we “didn’t know if we could marshal enough National Guard quickly enough.”
Trump on Monday threatened to deploy active-duty troops in cities across America if state and local officials failed to use Guardsmen to quash the unrest.
Out-of-state Guardsmen from Mississippi, Florida, Utah and Indiana are expected to be fully departed by Monday at 5 p.m., McCarthy said. Members from the Maryland and New Jersey National Guard left Saturday. The rest will leave over the next 48 to 72 hours, he said.
The D.C. National Guard will remain in support of federal law enforcement and metropolitan police for now, but the goal is to disband these units as well, he said.
Maj. Gen. William Walker, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said five soldiers were hit in the head with bricks thrown by protesters and are receiving medical treatment. Demonstrators were also throwing frozen water bottles and eggs. However, none of the Guardsmen used force on protesters, unlike local law enforcement, which has been accused of firing chemicals and rubber bullets into crowds.
“They were never aggressive, they were never offensive, they were strictly in a defensive posture,” Walker said.
The Guard is investigating an incident in which a helicopter on Monday flew dangerously low over protesters, blowing dust and tree branches into the streets. McCarthy said he authorized the use of helicopters to “observe and report” on the situation. Walker said the helicopters had permission to land in the city to evacuate injured people.
“The investigation will confirm if it was proper use” of the helicopter, Walker said.
Walker and McCarthy are set to testify before the House Armed Services Committee this week about the military’s response to the protest.