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Esper Says He Didn't Know Where He Was Going When Walking with Trump to Church

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Esper Says He Didn't Know Where He Was Going When Walking with Trump to Church

2020-06-03 13:19:59

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Donald Trump and his aides and advisers in front of St. John's Episcopal Church (Image source Screenshot)

Many were shocked to see Donald Trump using St. John's Episcopal Church as nothing more than a backdrop for his photo-op. What was further shocking was the large contingent of aides and advisers who chose to make the walk with him from the White House to the church. One of those was Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who seems as though he may be embarrassed, as he's laying excuses for following the president, saying he had no idea where he was going when he started following him.

Esper claims he was given no notice that they would be walking to the church. "I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops," he said in a Tuesday night interview with NBC News. 

He believed they were going to check out the nearby bathroom in Lafayette Square that had been vandalized along with the church. "I didn't know where I was going," said the secretary. "I wanted to see how much damage actually happened."

After the interview, a Pentagon spokesman reported to NBC News that Esper did know the church was one of the places he was going to see the damage. However, he backed him up in the knowledge that he didn't know Trump was going to use St. John's as a photo op. 

The interview took place a few hours after NBC News reported that Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley were surprised when Trump walked them to the church so that he could make statements while holding up a bible. The others who made the walk with Trump included National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, Attorney General William Barr, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

"Their understanding is they were going into Lafayette Park to review the efforts of the troops," said a defense official. 

Before the walk to the church, peaceful protesters had been cleared with tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets, in yet another very controversial move. The gathering was one of many being held across the country to protest George Floyd's death at the knee of a police officer. The then-police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital, and the officer, Devin Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder.

Also before the walk, Trump gave a speech in the Rose Garden where he threatened to deploy the military to stop the violence that has sprung up from the protests. He said he would take this measure if governors didn't take matters into their own hands to quell the violence that has included looting, massive damage, and fires. 

After his speech, Trump said he was going to pay his respects "to a very, very special place," but gave no further details.

The official also said that Trump did not walk out of the White House with the bible, so there had been no indication of where they were headed.  

Additionally, Esper and Milley also did not know officers used tear gas and other methods on the crowd to get them to disperse. "They were not aware that Park Police and law enforcement made the decision to clear the square," said the official.

Esper said in the interview on Tuesday night that he had "no idea" about plans to clear the crowd. He was eager to talk with National Guard members to thank them for their service. "I am very proud of the National Guard," he said. 

Members of the Guard had been called in to help with the response to COVID-19, according to Esper, as well as to prepare for hurricanes. Days later they were asked to put on riot gear. "I wanted to go out and thank these young men and women," said the Defense secretary.

Milley had been criticized by military officials for appearing in the streets while wearing combat fatigues during the protests.  

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, was outraged at Trump's display in front of the church. She said it "was an abuse of 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," she continued in an interview with Craig Melvin on "TODAY." "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." 

Sources have said the walk to the church was Trump's idea because he "wanted the visual." He had been frustrated by the news reports that he was hiding out during the week of protests in an underground bunker.

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