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‘No Joy’: Pentagon Emails Show National Guard Preparing for Mission Hours Before George Floyd Protest

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MINNEAPOLIS — On the morning of May 28, 2020, U.S. Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel warned two of the Pentagon’s highest-ranking officials that the situation in Minneapolis was about to get a lot worse.

Minneapolis police were expecting as many as 75,000 protesters to converge on the city that weekend in response to George Floyd’s murder three days before, Lengyel wrote in an email to Deputy Secretary of Defense David Nordquist and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. The Minnesota National Guard had 200 military police officers standing by to assist, he wrote. “They are prepared to be armed should MPD and the Governor request it.”

Only a fraction of the forecasted crowds showed up, but they were more than enough to overwhelm law enforcement defenses. That night, fires and heavy looting and vandalism claimed at least 20 buildings on E. Lake Street, including several restaurants, an AutoZone, Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits, a U.S. post office and a multi-story affordable housing project that was still under construction. Neighbors guarded their streets with baseball bats and garden hoses.

Police surrendered the Third Precinct around 10 p.m. The National Guard still hadn’t been deployed to E. Lake Street at midnight, as the south Minneapolis police building erupted in an inferno that would burn it to a total loss — one of the most shocking images of an uprising that was spreading across the country.

“No joy,” Milley wrote in an email as the police precinct fell. The general said he’d just met with President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mark Esper. “Need you to call me ASAP,” he told Lengyel.

The Pentagon emails — which The Minneapolis Star Tribune obtained recently in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit — provide a new glimpse into the behind-the-scenes communiques leading up to the response to the unrest. Gov. Tim Walz would later lament the city’s “abject failure” to get the riots under control. By the next morning, President Trump was threatening to send in the military as a show of strength.

“We were abandoned,” an unnamed local government official told authors of a Wilder Research report commissioned by the state to assess what went wrong. “By the time the National Guard even came, most everything had quieted down.”

In the months after the riots, Walz, Mayor Jacob Frey and other public safety officials deflected blame onto the others over questions on why it took so long to deploy the National Guard. The emails show the Guard was ready the morning of May 28 — more than 12 hours before the first Molotov cocktail shattered inside the precinct — and expected to be deployed by “late afternoon.”

“After last night’s violence, things have been accelerated by the state Director of Public Safety,” Adjutant Gen. of the Minnesota National Guard Jon Jensen wrote to the Pentagon at 8:30 a.m. that day.

Walz wanted to set up a meeting with the Secretary of Defense that morning. In the meantime, Jensen said, he’d just mobilized 50 members of a quick reaction force to support Minneapolis police. Soldiers were setting up command stations in Monticello, Stillwater and Arden Hills. Jensen said they were still waiting on orders from Minneapolis police and Walz, and they were storing guns and ammo in the Arden Hills armory.

“We have worked with Minneapolis PD before — we supported them extensively during super bowl 52 in 2018 — we know their leadership and they know us,” Jensen said .

He said state police and other departments were already supporting Minneapolis through mutual aid agreements, “so we are the reserve of the reserve.”

“Once we get our mission set from MPD I’ll follow up,” he said. “Right now: anticipate 200 [military police] for multiple days.”

The National Guard was not on scene that afternoon.

Soldiers were sent to other locations, including the Capitol in St. Paul, but the Guard didn’t arrive to the south Minneapolis area of the Third Precinct until almost 4 a.m. By then, most of the rioters were gone, and the precinct had been burning for hours.

Asked about the delay, National Guard Bureau spokesman Rob Perino said Walz was in charge of the deployment timeline. “The governor’s office directs the National Guard to respond — when and where,” he said. “That’s how any state will tell you it goes.”

Walz and Frey declined requests for interviews. In previous comments, the Mayor said he asked Walz to send in the National Guard on May 27 — the night before the precinct fire — after Police Chief Medaria Arradondo informed him that looters had broken into a Target across the street.

“He did not say yes,” Frey said of Walz in a Star Tribune interview in the months after the riots. “He said he would consider it.”

In a statement, Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said Milley and Esper advised Walz as they “worked together to assemble the massive response necessary to quell the unprecedented level of unrest.”

“This was an all hands on deck emergency that required local, state and federal officials working together to restore order and ensure public safety,” he said.

In 2020, Tschann told the Star Tribune that Frey didn’t provide adequate information to give the Guard a mission — including the need for soldiers specifically at the Third Precinct location. Walz’s office also told Frey that a verbal ask isn’t an official request for calling in the National Guard, Tschann told the Star Tribune after the riots.

Several after-action assessments of the riot response also describe the breakdown in communication between government officials in charge of the response.

Minneapolis failed to follow two policies established for calling the National Guard for help in a large-scale disturbance, according to one review, commissioned by the city. That included bypassing a critical step — calling the Office of Emergency Management — when the Mayor’s office contacted Walz directly and asked to call in the Guard. The Guard command “could not initiate the deployment because they had not received sufficient actionable information,” according to the report.

“We needed some specificity,” one local government official told the authors of the Wilder report. “We were trying to understand what did Minneapolis need, so we can articulate that to something that is executable to General Jensen and the Minnesota National Guard.”

The emails don’t provide details of the meeting between the generals and Trump that night, and several of the Pentagon officials on the email chain did not respond to requests for interviews. But public accounts from Esper and Milley show they disagreed with the president around this time over invoking the Insurrection Act — a federal law that grants the president authority to deploy the U.S. Army domestically against Americans.

The morning after the precinct burned, Trump said in a tweet that the military was ready to take over. “Any difficulty and we will assume control,” he said. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Esper, Milley and Attorney General Bill Barr strongly advocated against using the Insurrection Act, according to Milley’s sworn testimony to Congress during hearings over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Milley said he didn’t think the unrest sparked by Floyd’s killing amounted to an insurrection, and the situation didn’t meet the high bar of usurping the control of state governors and calling in active military.

Esper expressed his opposition to the Insurrection Act publicly at a news conference a few days later. “I knew this sounded presumptuous, but Trump couldn’t do it, and wouldn’t do it even he could,” wrote Esper in his 2022 memoir, a “A Sacred Oath.” “He was in a fever about law and order and fixated on not appearing weak. He reflexively looked to the military to solve this problem, which likely meant invoking the Insurrection Act and sending in federal troops. This was the wrong answer, and one that would make things dramatically, if not indelibly, worse.”

Esper’s opposition to deploying troops into American cities would be cited widely in news stories about the president firing him in a tweet five months later, as Trump sought to overturn the results of the election.

Esper finished his June 3 comments by saying the National Guard was the right tool for helping local law enforcement get the protests under control — not active-duty military. Afterward, Trump called Esper and Milley into his office and “launched into a tirade almost immediately” and accused Esper of betraying him, according to the book. “I’m the President, not you,” Trump said.


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