Tensions between the White House and Pentagon have stretched to near a breaking point over President Donald Trump's threat to use military force against street protests triggered by George Floyd's death.
Friction in this relationship, historically, is not unusual. But in recent days, and for the second time in Trump's term, it has raised a prospect of high-level resignations and the risk of lasting damage to the military's reputation.
Calm may return, both in the crisis over Floyd's death and in Pentagon leaders' angst over Trump's threats to use federal troops to put down protesters. But it could leave a residue of resentment and unease about this president's approach to the military, whose leaders welcome his push for bigger budgets but chafe at being seen as political tools.
The nub of the problem is that Trump sees no constraint on his authority to use what he calls the "unlimited power" of the military even against US citizens if he believes it necessary. Military leaders generally take a far different view. They believe that active-duty troops, trained to hunt and kill an enemy, should be used to enforce the law only in the most extreme emergency, such as an attempted actual rebellion. That limit exists, they argue, to keep the public's trust.
Vincent K Brooks, a recently retired Army four-star general, says this "sacred trust" has been breached by Trump's threat to commit active-duty troops for law enforcement in states where he deems a governor has not tough enough against protesters.
"It is a trust that the military, especially the active-duty military - 'the regulars' - possessing great physical power and holding many levers that could end freedom in our society and could shut down our government, would never, never apply that power for domestic political purposes," Brooks wrote in an essay for Harvard University's Belfer Center, where he is a senior fellow.
Even beyond the prospect of using active-duty forces, the presence of National Guard troops on the streets of the nation's capital has drawn criticism, particularly after a Guard helicopter may have been used improperly to intimidate protesters.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has made known his regret at having accompanied Trump to a presidential photo opportunity in front of a church near the White House. He has said he did not see it coming - a blind spot that cost him in the eyes of critics who saw a supposedly apolitical Pentagon chief implicitly endorsing a political agenda.
Esper two days later risked Trump's ire when he stepped before reporters at the Pentagon to declare his opposition to Trump invoking the two-centuries-old Insurrection Act.
Esper said he saw no need for such an extreme measure, a clear counterpoint to Trump's threat to use force. Almost immediately, word came from the White House that Trump was unhappy with his defense secretary.
On Saturday, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said Trump "remains confident" in Esper.
Australian Associated Press