SALT LAKE CITY — Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney met Wednesday with Utah National Guard soldiers deployed to Washington, D.C., to help deal with protests over the death of a black man in police custody, as a left-leaning group in Utah urged the governor to call the troops home.
Also Wednesday, Romney criticized the Trump administration for clearing nonviolent protesters across from the White House so President Donald Trump could stand for a photo op outside a church that was vandalized.
The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last week has sparked civil unrest and violent protests around the nation, including in Salt Lake City, with the president warning earlier this week that governors should use National Guard troops to “dominate” protestors or he would send in the U.S. military.
Gov. Gary Herbert sent 200 Utah National Guard members to the nation’s capital on Monday at Trump’s request to help civilian authorities around the D.C. Metro area preserve life, protect property and restore peace, according to a National Guard press release.
The governor’s office said in a statement Wednesday evening that Herbert’s deployment of the National Guard will continue in Utah as well as Washington, D.C., despite the Alliance for a Better Utah saying the troops should be recalled.
“Gov. Herbert is grateful that the protests in Salt Lake City over the past few evenings have been peaceful. The Utah National Guard continues to assist as needed in Salt Lake City so that protestors can assemble safely. The unit that was requested to help protect landmarks in Washington, D.C., is not being called back at this time.”
Lee, R-Utah, said it was an honor to meet the Utah soldiers serving in Washington.
“This is a trying time for our country and we need the safety and security that our guardsmen can provide so that everyone can exercise their First Amendment right in a safe and secure environment,” he said.
Romney, R-Utah, joined Lee in thanking the troops for their service in “the home of our democracy and a symbol to the world.”
“When the nation needs help, Utahns answer the call, and I am grateful to these dedicated soldiers for helping preserve the peace and protect life and property during this difficult time,” he said.
In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, Lee called the killing of Floyd “brutal and senseless.”
“There’s no excuse for what the police did to Mr. Floyd. His killers are being brought to justice. His death, we hope, will not be remembered for the senseless violence launched falsely in his name, but rather hopefully in the long-term reform of policing policies across our country,” Lee said.
Romney said the “murder of George Floyd shocked and sickened me” and that he respects those who have protested and demanded the country address racism and brutality.
“From the news clips I have seen, the protesters across from the White House were orderly and non-violent. They should not have been removed by force and without warning, particularly when the apparent purpose was to stage a photo op,” the senator said in a statement.
Attorney General William Barr ordered for the perimeter near the White House to be extended, pushing protesters away from Lafayette Square across from the White House shortly before Trump’s visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church where he posed holding up a Bible.
Utah’s only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, said in a statement that protests should be handled by state and local authorities.
“State and local jurisdictions are best equipped to deal with local peaceful protests and demonstrations. Gov. Herbert, the Utah Department of Public Safety and others in Utah law enforcement have the ability and resources to maintain order and stop criminal actions,” McAdams said.
Asked whether Utah should be sending National Guard troops to Washington, D.C., McAdams said, “The men and women of Utah’s National Guard are the best people you’ll ever meet. They serve our country with loyalty and honor. I’m grateful for their service and I’m not going to second guess them for doing their job.”
Romney said he has confidence that the state governors are in the best position to determine what resources are needed to preserve the peace, to protect life and property, and to protect the constitutional right of citizens to protest.
“I believe that police and National Guard resources are up to the task,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Alliance for a Better Utah called on Herbert to recall Utah National Guard soldiers in Salt Lake City as well as those he deployed to Washington, D.C.
Chase Thomas, Better Utah executive director, said it’s alarming that Utah soldiers are being used by the federal government to support its forceful shutdown of peaceful protests in the nation’s capital.
“We all watched in disbelief as peaceful protestors were driven from the White House before curfew with gas canisters, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades. In response, neighboring Arlington County, Virginia, pulled out its troops from the District. We call on Gov. Herbert to uphold the constitutional rights of protestors and do the same,” he said in a statement.
The Utah soldiers were flown to Washington on Monday. They were already positioned for a deployment and were able to be reassigned to rapidly respond to the president’s request, according to the Utah National Guard.
“As a service member and fellow American, it has been heartbreaking to witness the pain and frustration of our communities across this nation,” Brig. Gen. Michael J. Turley, said in a statement. “This mission to support civil authorities in our nation’s capital is one of our toughest missions, but one that we are trained and ready to do.”