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How Presidents Talk About Deploying the Military in the United States

Richard Altieri, Margaret Taylor
Thursday, July 16, 2020, 1:00 AM

How does the rhetoric of past presidents who have deployed federal troops to enforce domestic law compare to President Trump’s?

President Trump walks to St. John's Church after his June 1 address regarding nationwide protests (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead,; Public Domain,

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On June 1, President Trump spoke to governors and the public about deploying the military within the United States. Trump threatened to—but ultimately did not—invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy troops to the states. He did, however, deploy the U.S. military in Washington, D.C. He also relied on section 32 U.S.C. § 302(f) to authorize the use of various states’ National Guard troops in Washington, D.C. The move was unprecedented, as troops were deployed to engage in ordinary civilian law enforcement in a city where local authorities were engaged in such law enforcement and objected to the presence of troops controlled by the federal government. (As Steve Vladeck points out, this authority is not pegged to D.C.’s unique territorial status and could be exercised anywhere, including to send one state’s unfederalized National Guard into another state without that state’s permission.) In prior cases in which presidents deployed troops domestically, they did so either because a state government refused to comply with a federal court order or because state government officials had expressly asked for support.

The way Trump spoke about deploying troops also was unique. Prior presidents, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and George H.W. Bush, described their decisions to deploy the military in solemn terms, explaining in detail why the move was necessary, and making clear that the deployments were measures of last resort not intended to supplant local law enforcement. Trump, by contrast, made it clear he was eager to deploy troops and gave few specifics about what he was doing or might do next. Rather than taking pains to make clear that federal troops are not a substitute for local law enforcement, Trump told governors that state and local officials needed to “dominate” the streets or else he would deploy troops to do so.

President Trump’s Comments

On June 1, President Trump told governors on a phone call that in response to the images of protests, looting, arson and acts of physical violence by people in the protest areas in U.S. cities including Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Dallas, the White House was “strongly looking for arrests” and governors had to get “much tougher” if they were to avoid getting “overridden.” He blamed “the radical left,” along with looters. In an extended riff, he compared the situation to the 2011 “Occupy Wall Street” movement:

It’s a movement that if you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse. This is like Occupy Wall Street. It was a disaster until one day somebody said, “that’s enough,” and they just went in there and wiped them out and that’s the last time I heard the name “Occupy Wall Street.” ... They were there for forever it seemed, on Wall Street. They closed up Wall Street—the financial district of the world, and they had total domination. They were ordering pizzas, nobody did anything. And then one day somebody said that’s enough—you’re getting out of here within two hours. It was bedlam for an hour and after that everything was beautiful. And that was the last time we heard about it. But these are the same people. These are radicals and they are anarchists.

He told governors, “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to arrest people. And you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.” “It’s a movement,” Trump told governors, “If you don't put it down, it will get worse and worse …. The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak.”

By the time of the phone call, more than 20 states had activated their National Guard contingents. That meant that more than 17,000 members of the National Guard stood ready to support local law enforcement—the same number of active-duty troops currently deployed in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The president’s message a few hours later in an address to the public from the Rose Garden was milder but echoed the same themes. He blamed state and local governments for failing to protect their populations against “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa, and others.” He vowed to “protect the rights of law abiding Americans including your SECOND AMENDMENT RIGHTS,” pausing on each of the last three words for emphasis. Importantly, he vowed that “[i]f a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” For the District of Columbia, over which the president exercises unfettered authority, he actually did so, but without any information about which troops were being deployed, or where: “As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”

In his speech, Trump claimed to be an ally of peaceful protesters. Minutes earlier, however, Attorney General William Barr had ordered federal law enforcement officials and military police under federal control to push peaceful protesters from the streets around Lafayette Square—which they did using flashbangs, smoke bombs, pepper balls, rubber bullets and mounted police officers. Other such officers attacked an Australian news crew, including hitting a cameraman with a police shield before punching him in the face, and then hitting a reporter on the back with a baton as she tried to run away. Trump then strolled, along with Barr, Pentagon leaders, Ivanka Trump and other advisers, through the park to pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a bible above his head. The show of aggression against a crowd of largely peaceful protesters sparked outrage and widespread condemnation.

Meanwhile, the governors of several states were rejecting the president’s offer of a military response. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called the president’s remarks “dangerous” and said that they “send a clear signal that this administration is determined to sow the seeds of hatred and division, which I fear will only lead to more violence and destruction.” Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker went further, saying: “I reject the notion that the federal government can send troops into the state of Illinois …. [The president’s] rhetoric is inflaming passions around the nation. He should be calling for calm. He should be calling for bringing the temperature down. He’s doing the exact opposite.”

On June 10, the president renewed his threats to take military action. He wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted: “Radical Left Governor @JayInslee and the Mayor of Seattle are being taunted and played at a level that our great Country has never seen before. Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped [sic] IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!”

Earlier that same day, the President tweeted:

Trump’s tweet may have been a reference to Seattle’s decision to close a police precinctbut there has not been evidence of significant disorder in the city.

How does the rhetoric of past presidents in similar circumstances compare? Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act dozens of times throughout U.S. history, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. It was invoked numerous times in the middle of the 20th century to enforce desegregation and respond to riots, which were often prompted by police brutality or systemic racism. For example, in 1943, Roosevelt sent federal troops to a highly segregated Detroit to quell violence that had broken out between white and black americans. As gangs began to form and the situation spun out of his control, Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries asked the White House for support, and Roosevelt sent in federal troops. In that instance, Roosevelt chose not to address the incident publicly. In most other instances, presidents have spoken publicly about their decision to send troops. We examine four of those instances closely. In their comments to the country, presidents from both parties indicated that they first exhausted other alternatives; they stressed that the troops would serve a limited purpose, rather than replacing local law enforcement; and they called for unity and dialogue, while insisting on law and order.

Dwight Eisenhower

At a press conference in July 1957, just a few months before he would send the 101st Airborne Division to protect the Little Rock Nine, President Eisenhower said: “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send Federal troops into ... any area to enforce the orders of a Federal court, because I believe that [the] common sense of America will never require it.” Indeed, prior to Little Rock, Eisenhower had been reluctant to lend federal muscle to desegregation efforts in the South in the years following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Ed.

For example, in February 1956, Autherine J. Lucy, an African American graduate student, enrolled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, pursuant to a court order in the case of Lucy v. Adams. In protest, some 1,000 segregationists surrounded the building and threw rocks where she took classes. Citing safety concerns, the university board of trustees suspended Lucy, who promptly sued the school. A federal judge ordered the school to readmit her. The school did so but then expelled her on similar grounds. When Lucy filed another suit, the same judge held that the school’s expulsion was lawful, because it was not for racial reasons. When asked about the case, Eisenhower said that “I would certainly hope that we could avoid any interference ... as long as that state, from its Governor on down, will do its best to straighten it out.”

Similar incidents played out in Tennessee and Kentucky that same year. And in Texas, Gov. Allan Shivers orchestrated a plan whereby, upon a court order, black students would be briefly admitted to a white school before being suspended for public safety reasons. Again, Eisenhower did not deploy federal resources. Writing about the incident later, Orval Faubus, the infamous Arkansas governor who resisted integration in Little Rock, commented that “the president was purposely, it appears, kept in complete ignorance of Shivers’ open defiance of a federal court order when he stopped the attempted integration of the schools at Mansfield, Texas.”

But in Little Rock, Eisenhower finally stepped in. Pursuant to a court order, nine black students sought to attend a white school. On Sept. 4, 1957, at Faubus’s instructions, 270 members of the Arkansas National Guard barred the students from entering Little Rock Central High School, as a segregationist mob hissed and hurled abuse at them. As media attention grew, Eisenhower’s administration launched an investigation. On Sept. 14, Eisenhower arranged a meeting with Faubus, who agreed to comply with the court orders and allow for school integration. But by Sept. 20, it became apparent that Faubus had no intention of changing the orders he had given to the Arkansas National Guard. A federal judge ruled that Faubus had directly defied court orders to integrate. When black students returned to the white school after the court order, mobs gathered around the building and clashed with police. Eisenhower felt he had little choice. He issued Executive Order 10730, federalizing the National Guard and deploying federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine, so that they could safely attend class alongside white students.

On Sept. 23, 1957, Eisenhower gave a 13-minute speech from the Oval Office about his decision. He began by expressing the sadness he felt in being compelled to send troops to ensure that the federal court order could be executed without unlawful interference. He described the events of days prior in Little Rock:

In that city, under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a federal court. Local authorities have not eliminated that violent opposition. And, under the law, yesterday I issued a proclamation calling on the mob to disperse. This morning, the mob again gathered in front of the Central High School of Little Rock, obviously for the purpose of again preventing the carrying out of the court’s order relating to the admission of negro children to that school.

Whenever normal agencies prove inadequate to the task, and it becomes necessary for the executive branch of the federal government to use its powers and authority to uphold federal courts, the President’s responsibility is inescapable. In accordance with that responsibility, I have today issued an executive order directing the use of troops under federal authority to aid in the execution of federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas. This became necessary when my proclamation of yesterday was not observed and the obstruction of justice still continues. It is important that the reasons for my action be understood by all our citizens.

Eisenhower then described the Supreme Court’s decision that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, the role of local federal courts in effectuating that decision, and the importance of the rule of law. He continued:

It was my hope that this localized situation would be brought under control by city and state authorities. If the use of local police powers had been sufficient, our traditional method of leaving a problem in those hands would have been pursued. But when large gatherings of obstructionists made it impossible for the decrees of the court to be carried out, the law and the national interest demanded that the president take action….

He described all the decisions by the school board, its plan to desegregate schools in Little Rock, legal challenges to those plans, and the court’s finding and decision that the plan should be implemented. He continued:

Certain misguided persons, many of them imported into Little Rock by agitators, have insisted upon defying the law and have sought to bring it into disrepute. The orders of the court have thus been frustrated. The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms rests upon the certainty that the president and the executive branch of government will support and ensure the carrying out of the decisions of the federal courts even when necessary with all the means at the president’s command.

Eisenhower took special pains to make clear that federal troops are not a substitute for local forces and officials:

Let me make it very clear that federal troops are not being used to relieve the local and state authorities of their primary duty to preserve the peace in order of the community. Nor are the troops there for the purpose of taking over the responsibility of the school board and other responsible local officials in running central high school. The running of our school system and the maintenance of peace and order in each of our states are strictly local affairs and the federal government does not interfere except in very special cases and when requested by one of the several states. In the present case, the troops are there pursuant to law solely for the purpose of preventing interference with the orders of the court. The proper use of the powers of the executive branch to enforce the orders of a federal court is limited to extraordinary and compelling circumstances. Manifestly, such an extreme situation has been created in Little Rock. This challenge must be met and with such measures as will preserve to people as a whole their lawfully protected rights in a climate permitting their free and fair exercise.

Eisenhower’s decision prompted national controversy and resentment in Little Rock. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia told Eisenhower in a telegram that soldiers at the school were “applying tactics that must have been copied from the manual issued to ... Hitler’s storm troops.” In Little Rock itself, Central High School received bomb threats during the following school year, and protestors gathered frequently. It was not until May 1958 that the president defederalized the Arkansas National Guard.

What can we make of Eisenhower’s reluctance to intervene in school segregation cases, and his cautious approach in Little Rock? In 1956, before Little Rock, Eisenhower’s abhorrence of federal troops patrolling American streets seems to have outweighed his interest in desegregation, an issue he insisted to his advisers was too emotionally charged to be resolved quickly. But when Faubus kept black students out of school with the Arkansas National Guard despite multiple orders to do otherwise, Eisenhower saw the problem differently. This time, it was not desegregation at stake, but the very idea of law and order. He could not avoid a fraught decision: intervene and set off a national maelstrom, or look away and shirk the president’s solemn responsibility to uphold the law. And even after he chose intervention, he first tried a light touch. Only when Faubus refused repeatedly to act did Eisenhower invoke the Insurrection Act. As he explained his decision to a divided public, he stressed that the troops were there in a limited capacity—to enforce a federal court order, and not because the federal government had a special interest in local law enforcement or desegregation.

John Kennedy

In September 1962, James Merideth, a black veteran, sought to enroll in the University of Mississippi. He had submitted his initial application on the day of President Kennedy's inauguration. After being denied admission, Merideth sued in the courts to obtain entrance and eventually won the right to matriculate. Having promised never to allow desegregation, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett wanted to publicly resist the measure—but privately he negotiated with the president and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to allow Meredith to enter the university while saving face. Barnett asked the president to have federal marshals draw their guns at him and other protesters as Meredith entered the university—so that he could also save his political career. The Kennedy administration briefly entertained the idea but ultimately felt unsure whether Barnett would hold his end of the bargain. Frustrated by his negotiations with a prevaricating Barnett, Kennedy took a different course. In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, Kennedy signed an executive order federalizing the Mississippi National Guard and authorizing the secretary of defense to “use such of the armed forces of the United States as he may deem necessary.” That evening, Meredith arrived on campus, accompanied by federal marshals. Even as protests in Mississippi swelled, Kennedy gave a speech, aired widely on television and radio, announcing that he had signed the executive order so that he would be prepared to provide backup support, if needed, to the federal marshals already accompanying Meredith to the school.

In his speech, Kennedy said he had federalized the Mississippi National Guard to preserve law and order while minimizing any possibility of violence. He described in detail how Meredith had brought a private suit in federal court against those who were excluding him from the university, and that a series of federal courts as well as the Supreme Court repeatedly ordered Meredith’s admission. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy described his decision as “inescapable” and emphasized that his decision was a last resort:

I deeply regret the fact that any action by the executive branch was necessary in this case, but all other avenues and alternatives, including persuasion and conciliation, had been tried and exhausted. Had the police powers of Mississippi been used to support the orders of the court, instead of deliberately and unlawfully blocking them, had the University of Mississippi fulfilled its standard of excellence by quietly admitting this applicant in conformity with what so many other southern State universities have done for so many years, a peaceable and sensible solution would have been possible without any Federal intervention.

Kennedy then thanked Southerners who had contributed to “democratic development” and their contributions to integrations and the betterment of the nation. He said the responsibility of failures of the past ought to be shared among all Americans. He said that Mississippians at the university had an extraordinary tradition to uphold and that they must honor their responsibility to uphold the law with courage, even if they disagree with those laws.

As Kennedy spoke, a mob of 2,500 people were pelting federal marshals with bricks, bottles and lead pipes. The federal marshals fired tear gas at the crowd but lost control of the situation. The Mississippi local patrolmen who were supposed to keep the peace left the chaotic scene, and two men died in the rioting—a French journalist and a local jukebox repairman. Hundreds were injured. A civilian sniper who had set up on a Confederate statue shot out the lights around the building the federal marshals had surrounded, and then proceeded to push the marshals inside using high-powered deer rounds that shattered the door and window frames.

Notes by the soldier assigned to guard Meredith include this account:

The battle is growing desperate. The marshals are running out of tear gas. Bricks and bottles and iron spikes rain down. Gunshots ring out. Thugs drive into town from Alabama and Arkansas and Tennessee and Louisiana, one carload sending two barrels of buckshot into the home of LeRoy Wadlington, the African-American kid who lives off the highway leading into town. His father grabs his own gun and orders his family to lie down in the back of the house.

In the morning, the U.S. Army 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions, as well as an elite military police unit—some 30,000 troops in helicopters, transport planes, jeeps and Army trucks—arrived to rescue the besieged federal marshals and Mississippi National Guardsmen, of whom 160 had been wounded, including 28 by gunfire. The troops marched past the sorority houses, where girls cursed and threw books, and through “a storm of bricks and Molotov cocktails, never breaking stride.” According to the soldier assigned to guard Meredith, on campus, “The sound of hundreds of rounds of live ammunition being jacked into hundreds of chambers echoes off the old white buildings, chilling the crowd.”

That morning, Oct. 1, 1962, Meredith walked across the smoldering campus and registered for classes.

The violent event was soon swept off the front pages of newspapers because of the unfolding Cuban missile crisis. When most of the soldiers left the city a few weeks later, they were under orders not to talk to the press. After some were nominated for medals and awards based on their actions in the crisis, an internal Army memo from May 1963 stated: “The focus of additional attention on this incident would not be in the best interest of the US Army or the nation. ... [D]ecorations should not be awarded for actions involving conflict between US Army units and other Americans.”

President Kennedy was clearly reluctant to deploy troops. Like Eisenhower, he took pains to explain the origin of the federal court order he felt obliged to enforce. And like Eisenhower, he focused less on the particular issue of desegregation. He also took pains to make clear that all other measures had been tried and exhausted. Finally, he tried to appeal to the better angels of the Americans who opposed Meredith’s matriculation by referencing their traditions and the need for respect for the rule of law.

Lyndon Johnson

President Johnson similarly had reservations about sending troops to aid domestic law enforcement. As a senator during the 1957 Little Rock Nine incident, he had said that “there should be no troops from either side [sic] patrolling our school campuses.”

But Johnson faced significant turmoil in American cities in 1967. During what later became known as “the long, hot summer,” protests and riots broke out in cities across the country, fueled primarily by calls from African Americans for an end to systemic racism and police brutality. The Kerner Commission, which Johnson convened later that summer to study the genesis of the 1967 unrest, identified some 150 “riots or public disorders” in cities as diverse as Tampa, Minneapolis and Cincinnati. In an especially gruesome case, 24 African American civilians in Newark were killed by armed law enforcement. The Kerner Commission would later find that white racism, confusion and militaristic attitudes among police and National Guardsmen likely contributed to that death toll. It would also report that “[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal …. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.” Still, as the Newark crisis unfolded, New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes told President Johnson that federal military assistance would not be necessary.

The civil uprising in Detroit—which the Detroit Historical Society has called “the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation”—proved the most deadly of the uprisings that summer. On July 23, Detroit police raided a black after-hours drinking club. The police—nearly all white—made a number of arrests, and a crowd of primarily African Americans onlookers gathered around the police vehicles. The onlookers began to protest, and a brick was thrown at one of the police vehicles. Police responded by blockading the neighborhood, generating further resentment. The protest swelled rapidly. Police soon felt overwhelmed by the scale of the uprising. By the second day, having already sent in the Michigan National Guard, Gov. George Romney (father of Sen. Mitt Romney) believed he could not maintain order in the city. He asked President Johnson to send in the U.S. Army.

Johnson recounted in his memoir that Romney’s initial request failed to meet certain constitutional requirements: “He requested troops but failed to certify that the disturbances amounted to a state of insurrection …. His request, in short, did not meet constitutional requirements. Later that morning Governor Romney said he was not yet prepared to state that there was a condition of insurrection or domestic violence, because he had been told that such a statement might result in the voiding of insurance policies within the state.”

Romney called again and this time said, “There is reasonable doubt that we can suppress the existing looting, arson and sniping without the assistance of Federal troops.” Johnson then sent troops to military bases near Detroit. When Cyrus Vance (the father of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.), a trusted adviser sent to Detroit by Johnson, confirmed that Michigan officials could not maintain order in the city, the president issued an executive order deploying federal troops.

The ensuing days constituted one of the largest civil disturbances of the 1960s. Over five days, clashes between armed law enforcement and civilians resulted in 43 deaths, including 33 African Americans and 10 whites. Many other people were injured, more than 7,000 people were arrested, and more than 1,000 buildings were burned. The uprising is considered one of the catalysts of the Black Power movement.

Johnson’s speech on July 24, 1967, lasted about eight minutes. He began with a minute-by-minute account of all the communications that had occurred between the administration and the state government in Michigan. He described how he had received a wire from the governor requesting that federal troops be dispatched to Michigan, specifically describing that the wire had been received at 10:56 a.m.; that the wire had been sent from the governor at 10:46 a.m.; and that at 11:02 a.m. he requested that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara initiate the movement of some 5,000 troops that the governor had requested. Johnson said he advised the governor by telegram that the troops would be sent to Selfridge Air National Guard Base, and that they would be available to support and assist the 8,000 Michigan National Guardsman and the several thousand state and local police under the control of Romney and the Mayor of Detroit. Johnson clarified that he was sending Cyrus Vance, special assistant to the secretary of defense, for coordination and conference with local officials. He said that it was the “unanimous opinion of all of the state and local officials who were in consultation, including Gov. Romney, Mr. Vance, General Throckmorton, the Mayor, and others, that the situation had developed in such a way … as to make the use of federal troops to augment the police and Michigan National Guard imperative and that the situation was “beyond the control of the local authorities.” It was on that basis that he deployed federal troops.

Johnson continued:

I am sure that the American people will realize that I take this action with the greatest regret, and only because of the clear, the unmistakable, and the undisputed evidence that Governor Romney of Michigan and the local officials in Detroit have been unable to bring the situation under control. Law enforcement is a local matter. It is the responsibility of local officials and the governors of the respective states. The federal government should not intervene except in the most extraordinary circumstances. The fact of the matter, however, is that law and order have broken down in Detroit, Michigan. Pillage, looting, murder, and arson have nothing to do with civil rights. They are criminal conduct and the federal government in the circumstances here presented had no alternative but to respond since it was called upon by the governor of the state and since it was presented with proof of his inability to restore order in Michigan. (Emphasis added.)

Johnson devoted almost the entirety of his speech to showing that his decision to deploy federal troops to engage in state law enforcement activities in Michigan was based on the governor of Michigan’s request and the presentation of “evidence” and “proof” that local authorities could not restore order. He took pains to show that all lower-level local officials, including the mayor of Detroit, agreed with the action.

The conclusion of Johnson’s speech sought to calm, persuade and unify the country: He called on people in all American cities to “join in a determined program to maintain law and order, to condemn and to combat lawlessness in all of its forms.” He called on the people of the affected areas to return home, leave the streets, and permit the authorities to restore order without further loss of life or property damage. He ended by appealing to “every American, in this grave hour, to respond to this plea.”

George H.W. Bush

In 1992, George H.W. Bush and California officials faced an emerging crisis after the acquittal of four police officers charged with the beating death of black motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles. Like the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, the savage beating had been caught on camera by a bystander and was broadcast into homes across the nation and worldwide. As in Detroit in 1967, the crisis following King’s death was in part a response to systemic racism and police brutality that African Americans had long endured in the city.

The acquittal of the four police officers was announced at 3:00 p.m. on April 29, 1992, and angry residents took to the streets in the hours that followed. People set fires and looted and destroyed liquor stores, grocery stores, retail shops and fast food restaurants. Rioters pulled light-skinned motorists out of their cars and beat them. Police did not respond for hours after the rioting started, and people kept asking, “Where are the police?” In one heartening episode, four African Americans rescued a white truck driver named Reginald Denny, who had been beaten by rioting gang members at about 6:45 p.m. The four strangers succeeded in pushing Denny into his truck and drove him to the hospital, saving his life. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley called for a state of emergency at about 9:00 p.m. that night, and California Gov. Pete Wilson ordered 2,000 National Guard troops to the city.

The city imposed a curfew from sunset to sunrise, and most residents could not go to work or school. During five days of riots, more than 50 people died, including 10 who were shot and killed by Los Angeles Police Department officers and National Guardsmen. More than 2,000 were injured, and nearly 6,000 were arrested.

As the violence unfolded, then-Attorney General William Barr (also the current attorney general) informed the president that he had the option of sending in the Army to quell the unrest. Barr recalled that Bush said he preferred that civilian law enforcement handle the job: “Let’s not try to resort to regular military right now[.]” Later, Barr remembers, the president spoke a number of times with California Gov. Pete Wilson. According to David F. Demarest, Jr., Bush told the governor that he would federalize the National Guard, before letting his own staff know. Shortly before Bush was scheduled to deliver an address to the nation, he asked top advisers what legal steps he needed to take to federalize the National Guard. They informed him that all he needed to do was say it. The president later signed an executive order invoking the Insurrection Act. He activated 4,000 U.S. Marine and Army troops at the request of the governor after a night of phone calls between Washington and Sacramento.

On May 1, the president gave a sober, fact-based speech informing the country of his decision and the reasons for it. He grounded his remarks in the importance of the rights of U.S. citizens, the horror of what happened to Rodney King, and unity among Americans. “None of this is what we wish to think of as America. It’s as if we were looking in a mirror that distorted our better selves and turned us ugly. We cannot let that happen. We cannot do that to ourselves.” He also highlighted positive acts amid the ugliness that “give us hope.” He highlighted citizens who showed personal responsibility and helped the victims of violence, including the four black strangers who came to Denny’s aid. His words sought to persuade Americans of the merits of simple human decency: “If we are to remain the most vibrant nation on earth, we must allow our diversity to bring us together, not drive us apart.”


In the post-World War II era, a handful of presidents have sent troops to quell violence sparked by desegregation or systemic racism. But before Trump, presidents deployed federal troops only to enforce federal court orders or support local officials who requested it. Before Trump, in moments of violence and division, presidents called for unity and respect. And before Trump, presidents viewed the decision to send in federal troops not as an opportunity to display force, but as a solemn duty to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and George H.W. Bush seemed, for various reasons, keenly aware of the dangers of overplaying their hand. Eisenhower, after a distinguished military career, deplored the idea of sending a force trained for war to patrol a local school house. Kennedy wanted to secure a peaceful arrival to university for an American veteran, while negotiating with a governor who came from his own party. Johnson waited for Gov. Romney to use the right words, to make sure he did not overstep his constitutional authority. And Bush intervened only at the request of the governor of California and in the face of mounting evidence that law enforcement alternatives could not keep the people of Los Angeles safe.

Trump, by contrast, has adopted the language of battle. And he has not seemed at all concerned with fundamental constitutional notions of federalism and the rights reserved to states under the U.S. Constitution. Of course, Trump has not taken the final step of deploying the military to the states. But by deploying them cavalierly and in huge numbers in Washington, D.C.—without articulating what authorities he was using and over the objection of local officials—he showed that he is not particularly reticent about taking such a step. Trump’s approach, of course, is consistent with two central themes of his presidency. In moments of division, he peddles conspiracy theories and lashes out against his political opponents. And when it suits him, he pushes aggressively on the outer margins of his presidential authority with little regard for the precedent it sets.

Richard (Ricky) Altieri is a third-year student at Yale Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Amherst College and a Master’s in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University, where he studied as a Schwarzman Scholar. From 2015-2016, as part of a Watson Fellowship, Richard performed stand-up comedy in English, Spanish and Chinese in various countries. From 2017 to 2019, Richard served as a Business Advisory Services Manager at the US-China Business Council in Beijing, where his work focused principally on Chinese technology policy and intellectual property law.
Margaret L. Taylor was a senior editor and counsel at Lawfare and a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Previously, she was the Democratic Chief Counsel and Deputy Staff Director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2015 through July 2018.

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