Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he had NO IDEA he would be in Trump’s infamous photo-op and no idea troops would beat back protesters – then hastily ends emergency press conference to rush to the White House
- Esper walked with President Trump during as the president held aloft a bible at Monday’s photo-op after federal law enforcement moved against protesters
- Was accompanied by Jt. Chiefs chair Milley, who wore battle fatigues
- He told governors on a call with Trump to ‘dominate the battle-space’ in reference to U.S. cities
- Esper alleges he had ‘no idea’ that force was going to be used, claiming he thought he was simply going to meet with troops stationed outside
- Defense official resigned with extraordinary letter telling Esper: ‘I believe that you violated that oath’ to defend the Constitution
Defense Secretary Mark Esper called a press conference Wednesday to defend his participation in President Trump’s photo-op at St. John’s church – saying he had no clue what the president was planning until it happened.
‘I did know that following the president’s remarks on Monday evening that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette park and at Sy. John’s Episcopal church,’ Esper told reporters at the Pentagon after senior former military officials came down on him for the move.
He said he did not know ‘exactly where we were going’ or ‘what the plans were once we got there.’
‘What i was not aware of was exactly where we were going when we arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there,’ he explained. ‘It was also my aim and General Milley’s to meet with and thank the members of the National Guard who were on duty that evening in the park. it is something the president likes to do as well,’ he said.
Esper’s lack of knowledge also extended to the movements of military assets under DOD control, he admitted. He said it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that ‘we determined’ it was a National Guard helicopter that was flying low over protesters in an apparent effort to disperse them. He called for an investigation.
He also said he didn’t know about the plan for federal police forces to clear Lafayette park to make way for the president’s photo-op.
‘I was not aware of law enforcement’s plans for the park,’ he said. He said Guard forces were there in a support role and that he had not yet arrived at a command post when plans for the maneuver apparently were discussed.
‘I work very hard to keep the department out of politics,’ Esper said, as he takes fire for his decisions. He also backed off his use of the term ‘battle-space’ to describe how governors should use Guard to take control of cities, though he explained he was just using military jargon.
‘In retrospect I would use different wording’ he said of his conference call with Trump and governors.
‘National guard forces did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas into the crowd as reported,’ he said. He also said they wore helmets and protective gear ‘for their own protection, not to serve as some form of intimidation.’
Esper also came out against the idea of using the 1807 Insurrection to insert the military into U.S. cities, despite a New York Times report he backed the idea.
‘I say this not only as secretary of defense, but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard: The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,’ he said, two days after the White House entertained the idea publicly.
‘We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,’ he said.
The forces that cleared the square included Park Police on horseback and officers and military police with shields. Esper has told his subordinates to remain ‘apolitical’ amid social upheaval and street clashes coursing through the nation – even as he is being accused of violating his oath by joining in a photo-op with President Trump.
Esper penned the memo amid public statements by some military members that they stand with those protesting the death of George Floyd at hands of police in Minneapolis.
He told service chiefs: ‘I, like you, am steadfast in my belief that Americans who are frustrated, angry, and seeking to be heard must be ensured that opportunity.
‘And like you, I am committed to upholding the rule of law and protecting life and liberty, so the violent actions of a few do not undermine the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens.’
He also told them to “stay apolitical in these turbulent days,” according to the memo, released Wednesday.
‘As I reminded you in February, I ask that you remember at all times our commitment as a Department and as public servants to stay apolitical in these turbulent days. For well over two centuries, the U.S. military has earned the respect of the American people by being there to protect and serve all Americans,’ Esper wrote.
His admonition came as some military members, such as the top enlisted member in the Air Force, Kaleth O. Wright, who wrote: ‘I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes,’ the Washington Post reported.
Esper wrote subordinates Tuesday and reminded them to stay ‘apolitical’
He posed along with President Trump in front of St. John’s church. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. Standing with Trump are Esper, from left, Attorney General William Barr, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien during a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church after National Guard forces helped clear out Lafayette Park
Riot police chase a man as they rush protestors to clear Lafayette Park and the area around it across from the White House for President Donald Trump to be able to walk through for a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, during a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, near the White House, in Washington, U.S. June 1, 2020
Tear gas floats in the air as a line of police move demonstrators away from St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House, as they gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington
James N. Miller Jr., the former Pentagon undersecretary for policy, penned a stunning letter blasting Esper’s participation in a Trump photo-op. Esper says he didn’t know they would be going to St. John’s church
Esper himself has been accused of politicizing his role and enabling President Trump’s show of military might to make political statements.
Esper accompanied Trump on his walk across Lafayette Park to visit St. John’s church Monday, after National Guard and other forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear out protesters.
He was accompanied by Jt. Chiefs chair Milley, who wore battle fatigues during the walk.
Esper has dispatched an infantry battalion designated Task Force 504 from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to Washington D.C. after President Trump vowed to use the military to gain control of Washington, D.C.
The National Guard in D.C. is investigating the use of a guard medical helicopter with a red cross painted on it using the wind wash from its rotors to try to disperse protesters below.
Esper told NBC News Tuesday night he didn’t know Trump was going to hold a bible in front of the church, and had thought he was going to review troops.
‘I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,’ Esper said.
He added: ‘I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.’
A Pentagon spokesman later clarified that Esper was aware that he would visit the church but didn’t know the president would use it as a photo opportunity, NBC reports.
The loud explosions of flash-bangs and tear gas could be heard inside the White House Rose Garden while Trump spoke about being a ‘law and order’ president.
Military and police forces also served as the backdrop of dramatic images that the the Trump campaign immediately set to music in a dramatic video.
On Tuesday, James N. Miller, who formerly served as under secretary of defense for policy, resigned his seat on a Pentagon board with extraordinary letter to Esper. ‘I believe that you violated that oath’ to defend the Constitution, he told Esper.
‘You must have thought long and hard about where that line should be drawn. I must now ask: If last night’s blatant violations do not cross the line for you, what will?’ he asked the top civilian Pentagon official.
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