In an exclusive interview, Esper also said he had “no idea” about the plan to use force to disperse protesters ahead of Trump’s staged visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
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.
“I didn’t know where I was going,” Esper said. “I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.”
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