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Peaceful Protesters Defy Curfews On Eight Night Of Demonstrations; Defense Secretary Esper Speaks Amid Nationwide Protests. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 3, 2020 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A good and busy Wednesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


The eighth straight night of protests across the country, but a very different scene playing out, growing demands for justice following the killing of George Floyd. But the protests across from coast to coast, really, largely peaceful. We saw less violence, fewer clashes with police, and just isolated pockets of looting.

SCIUTTO: Can you believe it? It's been less than two weeks since Floyd's killing by police. His daughter had this message at one of the marches.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right, daddy is changing the world.

GIANNA FLOYD, GEORGE FLOYD'S DAUGHTER: Daddy has changed the world.


FLOYD: Daddy changed the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Daddy changed the world.


SCIUTTO: My daddy changed the world, she says. Little girl's life changed forever.

A civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department has now officially been opened.

HARLOW: And just moments ago, Minnesota's governor, Tim Walz, visited the site where George Floyd was killed last week.

SCIUTTO: CNN's Omar Jimenez, he was there. He was able to speak to the governor. Tell us about what Governor Tim Walz had to say a little less than two weeks now after this murder.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim and Poppy, this was his first visit to the intersection where George Floyd's final moments played out so infamously on that cell phone video now. And one of the things he spoke about was really trying to embrace the moment that this state is actually in. He realizes how high the stakes are for what the next steps are going to be here for him and, again, his state as well over the course of the past week. He's had to deploy the largest assembly of National Guard domestically within the State of Minnesota, that it has seen in its history. He's balanced some of the violent protests we have seen, again, in the nighttime in some cases.

And then here we are, a little over a week later, he stops by this intersection and reflects a little on what it means to be here.


GOV. TIM WALZ (D-MN): I think it's for me, I have to personally and viscerally feel this.

I don't think we get another chance to fix this in the country. I really don't. I don't think that's hyperbole. I just -- I think being at the heart of this and seeing the community's pain so viscerally, this is going to have to be that change we look for.


JIMENEZ: And let's remember, the reason we're seeing these protests aren't just because of George Floyd. It goes back to trying to change the culture in policing. This goes to as why you just mentioned a few moments ago, the governor announced a civil rights investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to look at the Minneapolis Police Department's practices over the course of ten years to see if there is a pattern of discriminatory behavior.

And then, of course, when you look at the memory of George Floyd, that, again, the family still feels so painfully, tomorrow begins a series of memorials that will, of course, culminate in a funeral early next week. Poppy, Jim?

SCIUTTO: Omar Jimenez, thanks very much.

Let's go live now to the Pentagon. The secretary of defense, Mark Esper, giving comments about the military's involvement in all this. Let's listen in.

MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime. The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder. It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times.

With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the department.

Racism is real in America. And we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it and to eradicate it. I have always been proud to be a member of an institution, the United States military, that embraces diversity and inclusion and prohibits hate and discrimination in all forms.

More often than not, we have led on these issues. And while we still have much to do on this front, leaders across DOD and the services take this responsibility seriously and we are determined to make a difference.

Every member of this department has sworn an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.


I have taken this oath many times, beginning at the age of 18 when I entered West Point.

The rights that are embedded in this great document begin with the First Amendment, which guarantees the five freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly and the right to petition the government.

The United States military is sworn to defend these and all other rights and we encourage Americans at all times to exercise them peacefully. It is these rights and freedoms that make our country so special, and it is these rights and freedoms that American service members are willing to fight and die for.

At times, however, the United States military is asked in support of governors and law enforcement to help maintain law and order so other Americans can exercise their rights, free from violence against themselves or their property. That is what thousands of guardsmen are doing today in cities across America. It is not something we seek to do, but it is our duty and we do it with the utmost skill and professionalism.

I was reminded of that Monday as I visited our National Guardsmen who are on duty Monday night protecting our most hallowed grounds and monuments. I'm very proud of the men and women of the National Guard who are out on the streets today performing this important task and in many ways at the risk of their own welfare.

I have always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations in support of local law enforcement. I say this not only as secretary of defense but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard. 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. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.

Last night, a story came out based on a background interview I did earlier in the day. It focused on the events last Monday evening in Lafayette Park, and I found it to be inaccurate in parts. So I want to state very clearly for all to hear my account of what happened that Monday afternoon. I did know that following the president's remarks on Monday evening that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St. John's Episcopal Church. What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when we arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there.

It was also my aim and General Milley's to meet with and thank the members of the National Guard who were on duty that evening in the park. It is something the president likes to do as well. The path we took to and from the church didn't afford us that opportunity, but I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with our guardsmen later that evening as I moved around the city to many of the locations at which they were posted.

I also want to address a few other matters that have been raised about that evening. First, National Guard forces did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas into the crowd as reported. Second, guardsmen were instructed to wear helmets and personal protective equipment for their own protection, not to serve as some form of intimidation. Third, military leaders, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were wearing field uniforms because that's the appropriate uniform when working in a command center and meeting with troops in the streets. Fourth, it wasn't until yesterday afternoon that we determined it was a National Guard helicopter that hovered low over a city block in D.C. Within an hour or so of learning of this, I directed the secretary of the army to conduct an inquiry to determine what happened and why and report back to me.

Now, you all have been very generous with your time, so let me wrap up by stating again how very proud I am of the men and women in uniform. The National Guard over the short span of several months has gone from tackling natural disasters such as floods to combating the coronavirus across the country, to now dealing with civil unrest in support of law enforcement on the streets of America, all while many of their fellow guardsmen are deployed abroad defending against America's real adversaries.

Most importantly, I want to assure all of you and all Americans that the Department of Defense, the Armed Services, our uniformed leaders, our civilian leaders and I take seriously our oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and to safeguard those very rights contained in that document we cherish so dearly.


This is a tough time for our great country these days but we will get through it. My hope is that instead of the violence in the streets, we will see peaceful demonstrations that honor George Floyd, that press for accountability for his murder, that move us to reflect about racism in America and that serve as a call to action for us to come together and to address this problem once and for all.

This is the America your military represents. This is the America we aspire to be. And this is the America that we're committed to defending with our lives. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll go to the phones, Bob Burns.

REPORTER: Yes, thank you, Mr. Secretary. Taking you back to your comments about Monday evening, when you left the White House with the president and others, I think if I heard you correctly, you said you did know that you were going to be going to the St. John's Church, but you didn't know what would happen when you got there. And you have since been criticized by many for essentially participating in a presidential photo op.

So my question is, do you regret having participated?

ESPER: Well, I did know we were going to the church. I was not aware that a photo op was happening. Of course, the president drags a large press pool along with him. And, look, I do everything I can to try to stay apolitical and just try and stay out of situations that may appear political.

And sometimes I'm successful at doing that and sometimes I'm not as successful. But my aim is to keep the department out of politics, to stay apolitical. And that's what I continue to try and do, as well as my leaders here in the department.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. We'll go to Phil Stewart.

REPORTER: Yes, hi, Mr. Secretary. Could you address, there's been a lot of criticism of your use of the word battle space to describe areas inside the United States where people are protesting. Would you like to take that phrase back?

And when you talk about keeping the military apolitical, how do you see the department navigating this when response protest has become a part of the issue? Thanks.

ESPER: Well, I'll take you second question first, Phil. That is the challenge, right? There's a political tone to this. We are in a political season. An election approaches, and this is always a challenge for every department of defense and every election year. And so this is something we're going to continue to deal with as we creep closer and closer to election season.

I have been speaking about the importance of staying out of politics by remaining apolitical to my leadership since I took office. I reinforced it when I came in when we started the New Year, and I have talked about it several times since then. But this will be the ongoing challenge.

With regard to your first question, as you rightly said, earlier this week, I was quoted as saying the best way to get street violence under control was by dominating the battle space. And probably all of you who covered the Pentagon hear us use this phrase often. It's something we use day in and day out. There are other phrases that we use day in and day out that you'll understand that most people don't understand.

It is part of our military lexicon that I grew up with, and it's what we routinely use to describe a bounded area of operations. It's not a phrase focused on people, and certainly not on our fellow Americans, as some have suggested.

It's a phrase I used over the weekend when speaking with Minnesota Governor Walz. He and I spoke a couple times Friday and Saturday as I spoke to him about DOD's support to what was happening there. Keep in mind, it was only a few short days ago where Minneapolis was the epicenter and all eyes were focused on Minnesota.

But Governor Walz is also a former member of the National Guard, and I was complimenting him on the call with the governors about what he had done. It was his successful use of the guard in sufficient numbers that really rest to control the streets from looters and others breaking the law. So I was giving him credit for that. And he was doing so so that peaceful demonstrations could be held, so that peaceful demonstrators could share their frustration and their anger. That's what I was encouraging other governors to consider.

In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we're militarizing the issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Luis Martinez (ph)?

REPORTER: Thank you very much for doing this briefing. Some of the people that criticized you for the term of battle space were some of America's most respected former generals. And they said that that was just inappropriate language. And if I could move on to what you knew about the situation in Lafayette Square, were you aware that the park police were going to use such strong measures in pushing back the protesters there?


And did you express any concerns that that may not be exactly what needed to happen to make that photo op possible?

ESPER: Thanks for the question, Luis. I was not aware of law enforcement's plans for the park. I was not briefed on them, nor should I expect to be. But they had taken what actions I assume they felt was necessary given what they faced, but I was not briefed on the plans and was not aware of what they were doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Dan Lamont (ph)?

REPORTER: Yes, Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time. I realize you're trying to keep the department out of politics, but it took you a week to say anything along the lines of what you did at the top of this call and your strong comments this morning about George Floyd. In light of the more than 200,000 black service members in uniform across the country, why did it take so long? Thanks.

ESPER: Thanks, Dan. It's a fair question. I think you may have written about this. And as you rightly said, I have worked very hard to keep the department out of politics, which is very hard these days as we move closer and closer to an election.

You know, remaining apolitical means that there are times to speak up and times not to. And as I said in my earlier remarks, what happened to George Floyd happens way too often in this country, and most times we don't speak about these matters as a department.

But as events have unfolded over the past few days, it became very clear that this is becoming a very combustible national issue. And what I wanted to do, I had made the determination as events escalated in the last 72 hours that the moment had reached a point where it warranted a clear message to the department about our approach.

And so given the dynamics, I wanted to lead by crafting my own statement for the department first, which I did yesterday, and you all should have seen it and it went out, this piece of paper. My message to the force, which said I thought is the proper tone for our service members and DOD civilians in all. And giving my leaders the space to also craft similar messages expressing our outrage at what happened, expressing our commitment to the Constitution, expressing our commitment as an institution to end racism and hatred in all its forms, and just a general expression with regard to what the department is about.

So that's the timeline, Dan, if you will, and that's why it did. And I do that with great counsel from my advisers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll go one more from the phones. Several of the chiefs were interested in speaking up sooner. Sometimes when you say nothing, that says something unto itself. In retrospect, would you have done so more quickly?

ESPER: Well, we did. You know, General Milley, we talked to the chiefs. There was -- most of the chiefs, wanted to take the lead from me. And so what I told them was through the chairman, I was going to take -- I was going to send the initial message out again to set the tone to express my views, and then I give them the space to share their views as well to do so. And, again, this is -- we are a week into this or so.

And when you look at what's escalated, it's been a matter of 72 hours, maybe 96 or so. And we have been consumed with a lot of things between now and then.

But I think it's important to speak up and to speak out and to share what we view, again, as an institution, the racism that exists in America and how we view it as an institution. Again, I think we have led on these issues over the history of the United States military, and we'll continue to do so certainly while I'm at the helm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, one more from the phone. Tom Bowman (ph). If not Tom, then Nick Shepherd (ph).

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for doing this. If I could take you back to the other night, I know you're saying that you didn't know exactly what the plans were. But with all due respect, those plans were designed by the commander in chief and also by Bill Barr, of course, the fellow cabinet secretary, and someone who is in the command center with you. So how could you not know about those plans, and what does it say about those plans to both clear the park and go to the church and do what the president did?

And number two, I know you're conducting an inquiry on the use of the helicopter. You may not want to say this, but do you believe it was inappropriate to use a medevac helicopter to intimidate protesters? Thank you.

ESPER: On the first thing, Nick, Again, I think there's some speculation with regard to what you stated. I would encourage you to speak to Department of Justice, as, again, it was a law enforcement action.


I had not yet arrived at the command post. I was en route to the command post when I was asked to return to the White House to update the president. I got back to the White House. And within a short period of time, we were -- the president went out to give his remarks.

So there was no space in between there. There was no opportunity to get a briefing. And, again, nor would I expect to get a briefing on what the law enforcement community was planning to do with regard to the clearing of the park.

Again, that was not a military decision. It was not a military action. The National Guard was there in support of law enforcement.

With regard to your second question, I would just say this much. I'm not going to comment because I have asked that an inquiry be made. I want to make sure I understand why, what happened, who was involved, what words were they given or not given, was there a safety issue involved, right, with the aircraft hovering that low? So there's a lot of questions that need to be answered.

I spoke with Secretary McCarthy last night about it. He is digging into it, and we will get the facts and we'll go back from there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, in the room, Tara.

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. So you served in the D.C. National Guard.

ESPER: I did. That's right.

REPORTER: To follow on nick's question, were you surprised that a medical helicopter from the D.C. National guard was used to intimidate people who were peacefully assembling?

And then, secondly, as this goes on, you have asked the secretary of the army to look into this, who tasked the helicopter. Was the helicopter under the authority of the Department of Justice? Is that why there's this kind of murkiness about how the helicopter was tasked, how a medical helicopter was used in an aggressive form?

ESPER: Yes. So those are some of the details we have to tease out in terms of who directed it, what was request -- was it at the request of law enforcement. You made a statement that it was to intimidate protesters. I got a report back that they were asked by law enforcement to look at a check point, a National Guard check point to see if there were protesters around. So there's conflicting reports. I don't want to add to that. I think we need to let the army conduct its inquiry and get back and see what the facts actually are.

REPORTER: But when you looked at the video, if you didn't see it live --

ESPER: Look, I think when you're landing that low in the city, it looks unsafe to me, right? But I need to find out, I need to learn more about what's going on. It would not be unsafe if they were medevac or picking up somebody who was seriously injured or something like that, right? It would be a different circumstance.

So we have find out all the facts, take it all in, and let the army do its work and then come back with what they discovered.

REPORTER: But to your understanding, it was not a medevac mission?

ESPER: That's right. To my understanding, it wasn't. I need to -- I'm sorry, but I need to actually head to the White House. So I just want to wrap up by saying something to directly to the men and women of the Department of Defense, and let me say this. As I said in my message to the department yesterday, I appreciate your professionalism and dedication to defending the Constitution for all Americans.

Moreover, I'm amazed by the countless remarkable accomplishments of the Department of Defense in today's trying times, from repatriating and sheltering Americans who were evacuated from a foreign land, to delivering food and medical supplies to communities in need and to protecting our cities and communities. In every challenge and across every mission, the U.S. military has remained ready, capable and willing to serve.

As I reminded you in February, I asked that you remember at all times our commitment as a department, and as public servants to stay apolitical in these turbulent days. For well over two centuries, the United States military has earned the respect of the American people by being there to protect and serve all Americans.

Through your steadfast dedication to the mission and our core values and your enduring support to your fellow Americans, we will safeguard the hard earned trust and confidence of the public as our nation's most respected institution. Thank you.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, can you consider taking another question from the room?

SCIUTTO: Defense Secretary Mark Esper there. I think it's safe to say, cleaning up some comments, defending as well the Defense Department and its response to this so far. Notable, Poppy, he said in retrospect, he should not have used the phrase, the word battle space, to describe U.S. streets where National Guardsmen are operating. Also saying he was not aware of plans to clear peaceful protesters to make way for the president's photo op, which Esper joined him for at the church across in Lafayette Square. Although he did -- I think it's notable to say, he did know they were going to the church, but says he was not aware it was going to be a photo op.

HARLOW: Right, great points, Jim. let's talk about all this. Let's bring back in our Military Analyst, Retired General Spider Marks, our White House Correspondent, Boris Sanchez, and our Political Director, David Chalian.

Spider, if I could just begin with you, to Jim's point about clearing the way for that photo op, let me, as we play the video for people of what happened, let me quote the defense secretary. Quote, the National Guard did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas into the crowd, as reported. But what we do know is that the park police used pepper balls. And that is a distinction without a difference. And that is not something the defense secretary said, right?


I mean, we see it with our own eyes here.

MAJ. GEN. SPIDER MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Correct, yes. The point that Secretary Esper was making is that, within his chain of command, within his authorities, there are limits to what he can do. He certainly can cross lines and make his opinion known. But what the park police will do, how they're equipped, what their plan of action looks like, what they encounter, that's out of his rucksack. That's in somebody else's.

HARLOW: That's true. I guess the reason I bring it up is he could also have said, is that the appropriate use in a moment like that, in peaceful protest, right?

MARKS: I think the short answer is it's inappropriate, of course. But I don't even know that he knew that they were being used. My point is this, you're asking him a question that needs to be directed towards somebody else.

SCIUTTO: Right. David Chalian, notable as well, the defense secretary said in no uncertain terms, he opposes the invocation of the Insurrection Act, which a couple hundred-year-old law in this country but would need to be invoked to apply active duty U.S. military on the streets. That is something the president has said he would do if state and local leaders do not deploy the National Guard. He said he would deploy the U.S. military.

How significant to have the defense secretary say he would oppose a move that the president has said he may use, he may order?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You referenced cleanup, Jim. I think he was cleaning up on so many different levels of what has transpired over the last couple days. The point you're making now about not being in favor of invoking that law is cleaning up from the very rose garden remarks that the president made the other day that Esper said he arrived at the White House right before they started, you know, heading over to St. John's Episcopal Church. So, there, he's in a clear difference with the president. He did not double down on threatening to use that, on militarizing the response to the protesters in some way, which is a clear message that the president went to deliver the other day, so there's clear daylight on that topic between the defense secretary and his boss, the president of the United States.

But to me, it was just part of this larger moment of this high-ranking cabinet official going before cameras to try to clean up not only his own words but to try and provide some context to the images that Americans have been seeing from the president over the last couple days.

HARLOW: Our Pentagon Correspondent, Barbara Starr, is also with us. Barbara, just your reflection on what we heard from the defense secretary just now.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, there's no way around it. This is what Esper wanted to do, is come in front of cameras and read a lengthy prepared statement, take a few questions from reporters on the phone, one question from a reporter in the room, and then read another statement and leave.

There are several things that he did not say, and perhaps very significantly, he offered no apologies for the activities in Lafayette Square that led to this photo op. He said that he knew they were going to the church, not aware particularly that it was a photo op. He was unaware that the park police and authorities in Lafayette Square conducted that violent move against the protesters, and did not address at all what happened at the church, at St. John's Church, where we now know so many of the clergy there are extremely upset about forces moving in against them.

So, Esper is saying he did not know all of that was going to happen. But now he knows, and he most significantly was silent, did not address any issue of apologizing for what had happened.

Also, perhaps very significantly, General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was nowhere to be found on the podium. Officials are telling us General Milley did not want to come out today because now he feels this is a political situation. And as the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, he doesn't want to be involved in politics.

Let's be clear, he was also on that walk to the church. He also let himself be interviewed in Lafayette Park that night to talk about the National Guard. General Milley made a decision not to comment on this publicly.

The other thing I would say is Esper made clear that he told the other chiefs of the services, the other joint chiefs, the heads of the army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, not to speak out about this if they wanted to put a statement out until he spoke first. That kind of went away.

The outgoing head of the Air Force came out with a very strong statement last night, chose not to wait for Esper on this matter. I mean, look, the Pentagon has a problem right now. They have tens of thousands of African-American servicemen and women who have been waiting to hear what the U.S. military thinks about all this.


SCIUTTO: General Marks, you served for decades in the U.S. military. You commanded forces in combat. Esper, though he wears civilian.