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.
The US president was sharply criticised by Colin Powell, the secretary of state in the George W Bush administration, after Mr Trump threatened to use the military to subdue civil unrest and cleared peaceful protesters from outside the White House for a photo opportunity.
The rebukes came after tens of thousands rallied in cities and towns across the US over the weekend in peaceful protests over the killing of George Floyd. Large crowds gathered in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, in rallies that were largely free of the violence that had marred previous demonstrations, now in their 13th day. Rallies were held in solidarity around the world on Saturday and Sunday.
The demonstrations came as some local authorities in the US began 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.
Mr Powell, who publicly supported Mr Trump’s opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, said on CNN on Sunday that he would support Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, in the November election this year.
“We have a constitution and we have to follow that constitution, and the president has drifted away from it,” said Mr Powell, a retired general who also served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. He added that Mr Trump “lies all the time”.
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 as former Trump officials and a string of military figures spoke out against the president this week.
Jim Mattis, the retired general who served as secretary of defence for Mr Trump, said in a statement on Wednesday that Mr Trump is “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 was 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, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the Obama administration, and former Navy admirals William McRaven, James Stavridis and Mike Mullen, another former chairman of the joint chiefs, who served under both Obama and Bush administrations.
“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 military by invoking the Insurrection Act on Monday if US governors did not quell riots and looting. He made the comments in a call with governors, as well as a public 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 aloft.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, told CBS on Sunday that the 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 argued 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 DC 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.