(CBS) — In a heated and contentious debate in the Oval Office last Monday morning, President Trump demanded the military put 10,000 active duty troops into the streets immediately, a senior administration official told CBS News. Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley objected to the demand, the official said.
In an attempt to satisfy Mr. Trump’s demand, Esper and Milley used a call with the nation’s governors later that morning to implore them to call up the National Guard in their own states, the official said. If these governors didn’t “call up the Guard, we’d have (active duty) troops all over the country,” this official said.
That same day, the Pentagon started bringing in 1,600 active-duty troops to bases just outside the District of Columbia. Late that afternoon, Esper and Milley were on their way to the FBI’s Washington Field Office, where the command center for the military and law enforcement response to the protests was located, the official said. En route, they received a call to come to the White House to give the President an update.
They did not brief the president, but they were asked to stay for his address in the Rose Garden and then to accompany him on the walk across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Church. Milley had been wearing his dress uniform in the morning but changed to his combat fatigues because he knew it was going to be a long night at the FBI command center, the official said. Neither man realized the purpose of the walk was to stage a photo op in front of the church.
On “Face the Nation” Sunday, Barr disputed the characterization of the Oval Office meeting, calling it “completely false” and denying the president demanded active-duty troops in the streets immediately, rather than having them on standby. “The president never asked or suggested that we needed to deploy regular troops at that point,” he said.
The White House also disputed that Mr. Trump wanted to deploy 10,000 active duty troops. “This is FALSE,” tweeted Alyssa Farah, the White House director of strategic communications. “I was in the mtg. @realDonaldTrump very clearly directed DOD to surge the National Guard – not active duty- after nights of vandalism & arson in DC. It worked, & we’ve seen powerful, peaceful demonstrations since.”
On Wednesday morning, after two nights of peaceful protests, Esper ordered 700 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to return to Fort Bragg, and then delivered a statement in the Pentagon briefing room that he was opposed to using the Insurrection Act to send active-duty troops into the streets.
Esper was saying in public exactly what he had been saying in private to the president, but Mr. Trump was furious with him at a White House meeting later that morning, the official said.
After the meeting, Esper reversed his decision to send the 700 troops home — not because of the president’s anger, but because he had received reports that protesters were planning a million man march on Washington for Saturday.
After another night of no violence in the streets, Esper again gave the order to send the 700 paratroopers back to Bragg and on Friday gave another order to withdraw all but 350 of the troops who had been placed on alert.
The remaining 350 are members of the Old Guard permanently based at Fort Myer, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the District, and they were placed on a lower state of alert.
Ben Tracy contributed reporting.
© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.