Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he was given no notice before President Donald Trump led him and other senior administration officials to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a widely criticized photo opportunity.
“I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,” Esper said Tuesday night in an exclusive interview with NBC News.
Esper said he believed they were going to observe the vandalized bathroom in Lafayette Square, which is near the church.
“I didn’t know where I was going,” Esper said. “I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.”
A Pentagon spokesman later told NBC News that Esper was aware the church was one of the locations where he would be viewing damage. The spokesman reiterated that Esper didn’t know the president was going to use it as a photo opportunity.
Esper gave the interview a few hours after NBC News reported that he and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were caught by surprise when Trump led them to the church for a staged visit.
Esper and Milley were among a group of White House officials and aides who followed Trump as he walked from the White House to the historic church after officers in riot gear cleared the area of peaceful protesters.
“Their understanding is they were going into Lafayette Park to review the efforts of the troops,” a defense official said.
Milley and Esper were on their way to the FBI’s Washington field office to monitor protests with Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray when they were diverted to the White House to update the president. After the briefing, Trump delivered an address in the Rose Garden in which he threatened to deploy the military to quell the unrest over the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Trump ended the speech by saying he was going to pay his respects “to a very, very special place,” but he did not elaborate.
The official said Trump, who held up a Bible for a photo op outside the church, did not walk out of the White House with it, so they had no warning. Esper and Milley were also not aware that the officers used tear gas to force the protesters out of the area, the official said.
“They were not aware that Park Police and law enforcement made the decision to clear the square,” the official said.
In the interview Tuesday night, Esper said he had “no idea” about the plans to disperse the crowd. He added that he was eager to speak to members of the National Guard to thank them for their service.
“I am very proud of the National Guard,” Esper said.
He noted that the Guard members had been called in to help in the COVID-19 response and to prepare for hurricanes and then were asked to don riot gear days later.
“I wanted to go out and thank these young men and women,” Esper said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church came a day after it was vandalized amid chaotic demonstrations triggered by Floyd’s death.
The photo op sparked outrage from lawmakers and religious leaders, including the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
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Budde said Trump’s staged visit to St. John’s “was an abuse of the spiritual tools and symbols of our traditions and of our sacred space.”
“He didn’t come to church to pray. He didn’t come to church to offer condolences to those who are grieving,” Budde said Tuesday in an interview with Craig Melvin on NBC’s “TODAY” show. “He didn’t come to commit to healing our nation, all the things that we would expect and long for from the highest leader in the land.”
Several former military officials criticized Milley for appearing on the streets of Washington in combat fatigues amid mass protests.
Sources told NBC News that Trump’s unannounced walk to the church “was his idea” because he “wanted the visual.” The president was frustrated by news reports that Secret Service officers ushered him to the White House bunker during Friday night’s unrest, the sources said.