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In the May 17, 2022 Late Night with Stephen Colbert clip Mark Esper's Loyalty To The Constitution Got Him Fired From The T**** Administration in a segment where he recounted several instances of people close to the US president recommending he deploy troops in non-military situations, he said:

...but then as we got closer in the final days leading up to the election, I think it was the last Friday in October I had to call my head of the National Guard in and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and have this private discussion and say "listen, in the days... on the election day and the days following it if you get any type of call from The White House notify me immediately so I can intercede if that's what it took to prevent anything bad from happening, if you will.

and soon after:

That's why the position of Secretary of Defense is so important; because the only two people in the United States that can deploy troops are the president, and the secretary of defense. So it was critical for me to be in that position to be the circuit breaker in case somebody wanted to do something, whether it was deploy troops to suppress protesters or deploy troops to grab a ballot box as the case may be.

Note that Esper is advertising his new book in this segment and this is a late night comedy show not a news cast, but considering the source Mark Esper's military training and background we can assume it to be at least a credible viewpoint.

So I'd like to ask:

Question: How do the US President's and Secretary of Defense's power to deploy troops differ?

1 Answer 1

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The constitution places all executive power in the hands of the President, and makes the President commander in chief

Article II

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. ... The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States...

The Secretary of State for Defense in not mentioned in the Constitution, it is a post created by Congress and only has such powers granted by Congress and the President.

The Secretary is the principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the Department of Defense. Subject to the direction of the President and to this title and section 2 of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 3002) he has authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense.(10 U.S. Code § 113)

The notion of "Deploy troops" is vague, and in a sense every Corporal has the power to deploy the soldiers under their command. However the powers granted by the President to the Secretary of Defense to deploy troops are wide-ranging. The Secretary is subject only to the orders of the President in matters relating to the operation and administration of all branches of the Military.

So, "How do the US President's and Secretary of Defense's power to deploy troops differ?" The president derives his power from the constitution. The Defense secretary derives his power from the President (and Congress). The President can overrule the Defense secretary. The Defense secretary can't overrule the President.

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  • "The notion of "Deploy troops" is vague..." I'm having a hard time believing that what sounds to be pretty not-vague from a West Point graduate is truly so vague, but maybe so. In the mean time: Oh, the I have an article two that says I can do whatever I want article II? :-)
    – uhoh
    May 19 at 5:51
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    Deploy means order (troops) to a certain place. If a Sergent orders a corporal to take a detail and dig latrines and the corporal orders two private soldiers to dig and two to carry, then the corporal has "deployed troops". But of course the corporal doesn't have the general power to deploy troops, except that which given to him/her through the chain of command. The same is true of the Defense secretary it is just that the secretary is a lot closer to to the top of that chain.
    – James K
    May 19 at 6:23
  • and you're certain that the 23rd U.S. secretary of the Army, 27th United States secretary of defense and Lt. Col (ret) Esper would not be using the term in any other than in the most general and vague way in such a definitive statement? Like I say, maybe you're right, but it doesn't sound like it, that's all. Is it possible to cite or link to "the powers granted by the President to the Secretary of Defense to deploy troops (which) are wide-ranging" as part of an answer to "How do the US President's and Secretary of Defense's power to deploy troops differ?" Can you name at least one difference?
    – uhoh
    May 19 at 8:12
  • Otherwise I'm not seeing an actual answer here yet.
    – uhoh
    May 19 at 8:15
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    But in practice the people receiving the orders are expecting to hear from the Sec Def, not POTUS. It's not really any different from a CEO being able to direct say their IT staff to do something but that staff would in fact expect to hear from the CIO. And the CEO not knowing exactly who to call to get something done while the CIO's job is to know the exact procedures relevant to their field. So there is a difference, in practice, that is not of the same nature as considering solely the legal aspects. May 19 at 21:39

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