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Defense Secretary Comments On George Floyd's Death

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Now to the nation's capital. As National Guard troops stream into Washington, D.C., President Trump is still talking tough about law and order. But today for the first time, an administration official spoke at length about what caused the protests - the alleged murder of a black man by a white police officer. And the remarks came from an unlikely place - the Pentagon. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about the comments this morning from Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So what did Secretary Esper have to say today?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, he called the killing of George Floyd a horrible crime and said the officer should be held accountable. And then he went beyond that. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ESPER: 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've 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.

BOWMAN: Now, in the past, you'd often hear a president or an attorney general - not a defense secretary - talking about issues like racism in America. So it was unusual and taught military officers, all of them white - are sending similar messages to the troops. Army leaders in a statement said, we can never fully understand the frustration and life experience of people of color. Admiral Mike Gilday said, I will never walk in the shoes of a black American or any other minority and can't imagine the feelings of pain, disappointment and anger.

MCCAMMON: And Tom, of course, the military and Esper himself have been in the middle of this issue. Many are criticizing Esper for being too political, including having a picture taken with President Trump at a church across from the White House. What's Esper saying about that?

BOWMAN: Well, Esper - you're right. He was sharply criticized by retired officers for that picture taken with the president. A Pentagon official resigned over it. Retired officers criticized him and said he should resign. Today, Esper said he knew they were going to the church, thought they were going to thank troops, said he was unaware of a photo op. But he said he tries to avoid anything political and urges the Pentagon not to get involved, the troops not to get involved in anything political. But there has been concern about Trump repeatedly politicizing the military, and Esper's just not standing up to him.

MCCAMMON: And Tom, hundreds of guard troops continue to head into D.C., but also active forces. Did Esper address whether active military forces should be used in this way?

BOWMAN: You know, he did - he said he didn't think active-duty troops are necessary in this case, said there's plenty of guard troops can - that can handle that. And he said guard troops are appropriate. And he also said he opposed the president invoking the Insurrection Act, which allows a president to send an act of troops to Washington or any other states.

Here's the other thing, Sarah. I'm told it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to send those active troops, MPs and paratroopers to Washington. And to do that, the Pentagon had to actually postpone or divert supply flights to troops in the Middle East.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Tom Bowman.

Thank you so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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