Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday he “didn’t know” where he was going when he left the White House so that President Donald Trump could pose with a Bible after protesters were violently dispersed from the front of a historic church.
“I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,” Esper told NBC News in an interview, saying he thought they were going to see a vandalized bathroom. “I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.”
Esper’s comments come amid ongoing protests nationwide over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody May 25 after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
During one such protest Monday in Washington’s Lafayette Park, across from the White House, federal police abruptly cleared the area with tear gas and flash-bang grenades as Trump pledged in a Rose Garden speech to crack down on anti-racist demonstrations.
Shortly after the address, the president left the White House with an entourage and walked to St. John’s Church for a photo-op. He held a Bible, declared America the “greatest country in the world” and left.
The move prompted widespread condemnation from many Democratic lawmakers and members of the clergy, some of whom said they were “outraged” at the violent means used against largely peaceful protesters.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also with the president and spent Monday evening walking around the capital to see “how well” National Guard troops were doing. Military staff said earlier Tuesday he didn’t know about the photo-op or the dispersal tactics before it took place.
Esper told NBC News on Tuesday that he, too, had “no idea” about the plans to disperse the crowds, but he noted he was “very proud of the National Guard.” He said he initially wanted to go out and thank them.
Earlier this week, the defense secretary said the military would help quell protests around the nation in a call with governors, saying the Pentagon was in “full support” of local law enforcement.
“I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battle space, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” he said in the call, audio of which was obtained by The Washington Post.