Presidents have leeway to use military for domestic purposes

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A military Humvee blocks an intersection along K Street in downtown Washington as demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's warning that he would deploy the United States military to any state that refuses to take aggressive action against rioting rests on a longstanding presidential power that gives wide latitude to the White House, legal experts said.

But a decision to do so would be met with likely legal opposition and strong opposition from governors seeing it as an overreaction.

“If a city or 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,” Trump said during a Rose Garden address as cities across the country grappled with property destruction, looting and violent police clashes in the week since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Legal experts say the president does indeed have the authority under the Insurrection Act of 1807 to dispatch the military in states that are unable to put down an insurrection or are defying federal law.

In the last half-century, presidents have sent the military to Southern states to ensure desegregation of schools and to protect civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and to Los Angeles after the California governor sought federal help during the 1992 riots.

Even so, the president's comments set up an immediate conflict with officials in some states, who disputed that the president had unilateral authority to send in troops against their will.

“The President of the United States is not a dictator, and President Trump does not and will not dominate New York state," New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Monday, adding that the state was prepared to go to court if need be.

A leading Democratic voice on national security, Michèle Flournoy, who is a former top Pentagon policy official, said Tuesday that Trump should avoid using active-duty military forces except as a last resort.