Dempsey: Trump's 'inflammatory' threat to use active duty troops hurts US military

The former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman challenged Trump's protest response.

The president's "inflammatory language" and threats to use military troops to respond to the George Floyd protests across the country this week have strained Americans' relationship with the U.S. military, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey on Sunday warned.

"My generation of military leaders, who entered right after the Vietnam War, spent the majority of our careers, whether it was 20 years, 30 years or 40 years, in my case, trying to rebuild our relationship with the American people," the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman said in an interview Sunday with ABC's "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

"I felt it important to try to keep that relationship sound and solid," he continued. "Inflammatory language can be an impediment to that."

Dempsey, the author of the new book "No Time for Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most From West Point To The West Wing," on Monday criticized President Donald Trump's response to protesters, and comments by Defense Secretary Mark Esper referring to the protest-filled streets as a "battle space."

“America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” Dempsey tweeted.

Trump is "given a lot of authority by our Constitution and the laws that interpret it," Dempsey said. "I thought, given the state of the unrest, and the risk that we would put the active duty military in a position where its relationship with the American people would be adversely affected, that I should say so."

Dempsey, who served as President Barack Obama's former top military adviser, said "photo-ops" are "some of the most awkward moments we have in that civil-military relationship."

Pressed by Raddatz on Trump's photo-op with a Bible outside St. John's Church on Monday -- which took place after law enforcement forcibly removed peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House -- Dempsey said he took Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "at their word" that they did not know what the president had planned for the trip to the church, which had minor fire damage from the previous night during protests.

"The relationship between the president's principal military adviser and the president himself has to be one of trust and confidence," he said. "I think that this moment will make it a little harder."

Dempsey also voiced support for the protests across the country against racism and police brutality, connecting the goals of protesters to the unfinished work of the soldiers who died under his command in the Army. He keeps a box of 132 cards at his desk -- one for each lost soldier -- to remind him of their sacrifice.

"I never let myself forget that in the remainder of my career and to this day, because they couldn't fulfill their potential, I had to make sure that I did the best to fulfill mine, and whatever that meant, and to make a difference in people's lives," he said.

"That's what these protests, by the way, it seems to me, are all about," he continued. "Trying to allow people to actually fulfill their potential, one of the great promises of living in this country."

"We absolutely need to be very careful about how the military is used in that circumstance," Dempsey said.

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