WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Sunday that he had ordered National Guard troops to begin withdrawing from the nation’s capital, after a week of relentless criticism over his threat to militarize the government’s response to nationwide protests, including rebukes from inside the military establishment itself.
Mr. Trump announced his order on Twitter as three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff harshly condemned him for using force to drive protesters back from the White House and threatening to send troops to quell protests in other cities. They warned that the military risked losing credibility with the American people.
The president said the National Guard soldiers would withdraw “now that everything is under perfect control.”
“They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed,” he wrote on Twitter. “Far fewer protesters showed up last night than anticipated!”(In fact, the daylong protest in Washington on Saturday appeared larger than earlier rallies over the past week.)
The withdrawal capped a tumultuous week that badly strained relations between Mr. Trump and the military, and tested the constraints on a president’s ability to deploy troops on American soil. Federal authorities used chemical irritants and flash-bang grenades to clear peaceful protesters outside the White House for a photo opportunity by Mr. Trump, National Guard helicopters flew low over demonstrators to scatter them and active-duty troops were summoned to just outside the capital.
On Sunday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington called the Trump administration’s deployment of troops to the area “an invasion.” And the retired military commanders said the troops should never have been there in the first place.
“We have a military to fight our enemies, not our own people,” Mike Mullen, a retired Navy admiral who was the top military adviser to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told “Fox News Sunday.”
He said putting troops into domestic demonstrations risked the trust the Pentagon had worked to regain with the American people after the upheaval of the Vietnam War.
“In very short order, should we get into conflict in our own streets, there’s a very significant chance we could lose that trust that it’s taken us 50-plus years to restore,” Mr. Mullen said.
Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general who was the first African-American national security adviser, Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, called Mr. Trump’s actions “dangerous for our democracy” and “dangerous for our country.”
“We have a Constitution,” Mr. Powell said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We have to follow that Constitution. And the president’s drifted away from it.”
Mr. Powell, who worked for the Republican presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, said he would vote for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat. Mr. Powell also voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Less than 90 minutes later, Mr. Trump mocked Mr. Powell on Twitter as “a real stiff who was responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars.” As secretary of state in 2003, Mr. Powell made the case for invading Iraq to the United Nations, in part by accusing Saddam Hussein’s government of stockpiling chemical weapons agents and developing nuclear and biological weapons, intelligence that turned out to be false.
“Didn’t Powell say that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction?’” Mr. Trump wrote. “They didn’t, but off we went to WAR!”
In a telephone call with reporters on Sunday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said about 5,000 National Guard troops who were deployed to Washington would withdraw over the next three days because the protests had “become peaceful in nature.” About 1,200 troops from the District of Columbia National Guard will remain on duty, he said, supporting civilian law enforcement.
Attorney General William P. Barr defended the administration’s actions on Sunday, saying that active-duty troops had been stationed outside Washington only as a last resort to quell violence after protests the previous weekend had devolved into arson and the defacement of government buildings near the White House.
“One of the police officials told us, the D.C. police, it was the most violent day in Washington in 30 years,” Mr. Barr said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “The decision was made to have at the ready and on hand in the vicinity some regular troops. But everyone agreed that the use of regular troops was a last resort and that as long as matters can be controlled with other resources, they should be.”
Mr. Trump had discussed invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops in American cities, a power Mr. Barr agreed the president had in the interview Sunday. But Mr. Barr and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dissuaded him in conversations that grew loud and heated, officials said. General Milley later released a memo to military commanders reiterating service members’ oath to defend the Constitution, which he said “gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”
After an extraordinary standoff with Pentagon officials who were concerned about how the forces might be used, Mr. Trump also agreed on Thursday to begin sending home the active-duty troops from the 82nd Airborne Division he had ordered to the capital area. None of the active-duty troops ever deployed in Washington, instead remaining on alert outside the city while National Guard members took up position.
Officials said the Army was investigating a series of low-altitude National Guard helicopter maneuvers over demonstrations in Washington last week that human rights organizations quickly criticized as a show of force usually reserved for combat zones.
Mr. McCarthy and other top Pentagon officials had issued a loosely worded order for the helicopters to use “persistent presence” to disperse the protesters. Privately, military officials said the order sought to show that the National Guard could handle the protests and that sending in active-duty forces, as Mr. Trump had pushed for, would be unnecessary.
On Sunday, Mr. McCarthy defended the National Guard presence in Washington and said troops “did everything not to cross” lines that would lead to violence.
“We came right up to the edge of bringing active troops here and we didn’t,” he said.
“At times it got a little tense,” Mr. McCarthy said.
The helicopters had flown so low that the downward blast from their rotor blades sent protesters scurrying for cover and ripped signs from the sides of buildings. The pilots of one of the helicopters have been grounded pending the outcome of the inquiry.
Martin E. Dempsey, a retired Army general who was the Joint Chiefs chairman during the Obama administration, criticized the Trump administration’s comparisons of the demonstrations to battlegrounds as “inflammatory language” that could damage the military’s relationship with the public.
Mr. Dempsey said he entered the military at the end of the Vietnam War. “It took us awhile to actually regain the trust of the American people,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
It was the latest salvo by retired senior military officials against the Trump administration’s use of force during demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis two weeks ago. The vast majority of protests have been peaceful, but Mr. Trump ordered security forces — including military troops — into Washington after businesses in some places were looted or damaged.
The crackdown on protesters in Washington last week was of particular concern, said James G. Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and a former supreme allied commander at NATO.
“It rang echoes of what the founders feared more than anything, which was the use of armed active-duty military against citizens,” Mr. Stavridis told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
He added: “The military is very concerned about getting pulled into the maelstrom of politics in an election year in order to push protesters.”
Mr. Mullen also raised concerns about the lack of diversity among the leaders of the American armed forces, in which 36 of the 41 senior officers with four-star ranking, the military’s highest, are white men, even though 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty are people of color. Mr. Mullen, who is white, said that the military had long grappled with issues of race and equality, and that “we’ve been actually very, very good at making an awful lot of progress.”
“That said, I’ve heard from minority members of the military right now who are in despair and in anguish,” Mr. Mullen said. “Probably the single biggest thing we lack are black leaders at the four-star level, and we should do much more about that. And that’s on the current military leadership.”
Reporting was contributed by Chris Cameron, Katie Benner, Katie Rogers and Eric Schmitt.