Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared on Wednesday he opposes using military troops for law enforcement in containing current street protests, tamping down threats from President Donald Trump, who had warned states he was willing to send soldiers to "dominate" their streets.

Less than 48 hours after the President threatened to use the Insurrection Act to contain protests if governors were not able to get a handle on unrest, Esper said the 1807 law should be invoked in the United States "only in the most urgent and dire of situations". He added, "We are not in one of those situations now."

Esper, at Trump's encouragement, had already authorised the movement of about 1300 active-duty Army personnel to military bases just outside the nation's capital, but they have not entered the city — and defence officials said some of the troops were beginning to return to their home base on Wednesday.

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White House officials indicated even before Esper's comments that Trump was backing away from invoking the Insurrection Act for protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the President was still willing to proceed.

Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd as they gather on Wednesday on the East side of the US Capitol in Washington. Photo / AP
Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd as they gather on Wednesday on the East side of the US Capitol in Washington. Photo / AP

"If needed, he will use it," she told reporters. "But at this time he's relying on surging the streets with National Guard. It's worked with great effect."

At the same time, the President was taking credit for the deployment of federal and other law enforcement officers to the nation's capital, saying it offered a model to states on how to stop violence accompanying some protests nationwide.

Trump argued that the massive show of force was responsible for protests in Washington and other cities turning more calm in recent days and repeated his criticism of governors who have not deployed their National Guard to the fullest.

"You have to have a dominant force," Trump told Fox New Radio on Wednesday. "We need law and order."

Underscoring his criticism, McEnany said, "The weak-kneed policies of New York stand in stark contrast to the law and order policies of this president."

People walk past Massachusetts National Guard troops during a protest against police brutality in Boston on Wednesday following the death of George Floyd. Photo / AP
People walk past Massachusetts National Guard troops during a protest against police brutality in Boston on Wednesday following the death of George Floyd. Photo / AP

She didn't dismiss reports of tension between Trump and Esper. Asked repeatedly if Trump still had confidence in his Pentagon chief, she said, "As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper, and should the President lose faith we will all learn about that in the future."

Esper, in his Pentagon remarks, also strongly criticised the actions of the Minneapolis police for the incident last week that ignited the protests. Floyd, a black man being arrested, died after a white officer pressed his knee to his neck for several minutes. Esper called the act "murder" and "a horrible crime".

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The Defense Secretary himself has come under fire from critics, including retired senior military officers, for having walked from the White House on Monday evening with Trump and others for a presidential photo opportunity in front of St John's Episcopal Church, which had previously suffered damage from protesters.

Esper said that while he was aware they were heading to St John's, he did not know what would happen there.

"I was not aware a photo op was happening," he said, adding that he also did not know that police had forcibly moved peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to clear the way for Trump and his entourage.

The White House laid responsibility for Monday's events in Lafayette Park on Attorney General William Barr, saying he gave the order for law enforcement to clear out the protest before Trump's walk to the church ahead of Washington's 7pm curfew. McEnany said the decision was made earlier Monday but had not been executed by the time Barr arrived in the park to survey the scene. He gave the order at that time.

Masked protesters hurl petrol bombs towards the direction of riot police officers outside the US Embassy in Athens following a demonstration on Wednesday over the death of Geroge Floyd. Photo / AP
Masked protesters hurl petrol bombs towards the direction of riot police officers outside the US Embassy in Athens following a demonstration on Wednesday over the death of Geroge Floyd. Photo / AP

McEnany said law enforcement conducted the operation with appropriate force, which included pepper spray and other chemical agents, and officers on horseback and batons clearing a crowd made up almost entirely of peaceful protesters.

Trump put a political spin on his criticism of states that have seen violence. He said, "You notice that all of these places that have problems, they're not run by Republicans. They're run by liberal Democrats."

The Defense Department has drafted contingency plans for deploying active-duty military if needed. Pentagon documents reviewed by The Associated Press show plans for soldiers from an Army division to protect the White House and other federal buildings if the security situation in the nation's capital were to deteriorate and the National Guard could not secure the facilities.

Though the crackdown on the Washington demonstrations was praised by some Trump supporters on Tuesday, a handful of Republicans expressed concern that law enforcement officers risked violating the protesters' First Amendment rights.

The situation in Washington had escalated on Monday, becoming a potent symbol of Trump's policing tactics and a physical manifestation of the rhetorical culture war he has stoked since before he was elected.

The clampdown followed a weekend of demonstrations outside the White House. Trump had been furious about images juxtaposing fires set in the park outside the executive mansion with a darkened White House in the background, according to current and former campaign and administration officials. He was also angry about the news coverage revealing he had gone to the secure White House bunker during Friday's protests.

Trump on Wednesday acknowledged he visited the bunker Friday but claimed he was only conducting an inspection as protests raged outside the White House gates.

On Monday, 715 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division had arrived in the capital area in case the situation in Washington escalated. They were stationed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Two more 82nd Airborne battalions, totaling 1300 soldiers, were on standby at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, according to documents reviewed by AP.