Donald Trump faced growing criticism from former US military chiefs on Sunday over his handling of anti-police violence protests and his threats to send troops into American cities following the death of George Floyd.
Colin Powell, secretary of state in the George W Bush administration, became the latest to sharply criticise the president after he threatened to use the military to subdue the demonstrations and had peaceful protesters cleared for a photo opportunity.
“We have a constitution and we have to follow that constitution, and the president has drifted away from it,” Mr Powell, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told CNN.
Mr Powell added that he would support Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, in the November election this year. The former general publicly supported Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election.
Peaceful protests continued across the US on Sunday as several cities lifted curfews, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. In Washington DC, the marchers included Utah senator Mitt Romney, the former presidential candidate who was the only Republican to vote to convict Mr Trump in his impeachment this year. He told a Washington Post reporter he was demonstrating “to make sure that people understand that black lives matter".
Local authorities in the US have begun to heed calls by activists for dramatic police reform under the slogan “defund the police”. Bill de Blasio, the New York mayor, said he would cut the police budget and spend more on social services. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, a veto-proof majority of the city council pledged to dismantle the police department and start afresh.
The criticism from Mr Powell, who is from the moderate wing of the Republican party that Mr Trump soundly defeated in the 2016 presidential primaries, came after a string of former Trump officials and military figures spoke out against the president.
Jim Mattis, the retired general who served as secretary of defence, said in a statement on Wednesday that Mr Trump was “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try”.
His statement was supported by John Kelly, another retired general who served as Mr Trump’s chief of staff. Mr Kelly said on Friday: ‘“I think we need to look harder at who we elect.”
Criticisms also came from retired general John Allen, Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and former Navy admirals William McRaven, James Stavridis and Mike Mullen, another former chairman of the joint chiefs.
“We have a military to fight our enemies, not our own people. And our military should never be called to fight our own people as enemies of the state. And that quite frankly for me really tipped it over,” said Mr Mullen on Fox News Sunday.
Mr Trump threatened to deploy the troops by invoking the Insurrection Act if US governors did not quell riots and looting. He made the comments in a call with governors, as well as a speech outside the White House that came as nearby protesters were being forcibly pushed back by law enforcement officers.
Shortly after, Mr Trump walked through the area that had just been cleared to a nearby church for photos of him holding a bible.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, told CBS on Sunday that protesters had been cleared as part of a previously planned operation to expand the perimeter around the White House. Mr Barr said he did not know that Mr Trump was planning a photo opportunity when he approved the operation.
He added that the media had not given enough attention to violence by rioters in the area around the White House last weekend and disputed accounts that the crowd on Monday was peaceful.
“There were projectiles being hurled at the police,” he said. “I was there, they were thrown. I saw them thrown.”
This week 1,600 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were placed on standby near Washington but were not deployed. The protests in the US capitol this week have been largely peaceful.
The president said on Sunday he had ordered the national guard to withdraw from the capitol “now that everything is under perfect control”. The national guard in Washington DC is under the president’s control because the city, not being a state, has no governor.
Mr Trump also responded to Mr Powell’s comments in a pair of tweets, calling him both “overrated” and “a real stiff”. He pointed to Mr Powell’s role in selling the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as secretary of state in the George W Bush administration.
“Didn’t Powell say that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction?’ They didn’t, but off we went to WAR!” Mr Trump tweeted.
Mr Trump has faced strong opposition from establishment Republicans and national security officials in the past. After his unexpected victory in 2016, he cemented his control over the Republican party and currently polls above 90 per cent among Republican voters.
However, the president faces a tough re-election battle against Mr Biden, a centrist Democrat who is more well-liked than Mr Trump’s opponent in 2016. Mr Biden leads Mr Trump in polling, including in closely contested states.
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