Politics

Defense Secretary Says He Didn’t Realize He’d Be Making St John’s Visit Amid Protests

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper didn’t know where he was headed when he and other senior administration officials went to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday night ahead of protests, he said.

“I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened,” Esper said in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday night.

He was not aware that the church would serve as the backdrop for a photo of the president and members of his team once they all arrived, he added. (RELATED: President Trump Walks Out Of White House, Holds Up Bible In Front Of St. John’s Church)

Rioters and peaceful protesters alike have clashed with D.C. police officers and members of the National Guard since the weekend over the death of George Floyd, who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, according to footage.

Police reportedly used tear gas Monday to disperse crowds, prompting criticism asserting that officers had crushed a peaceful demonstration. Park Police has since gone on the record and insisted that tear gas was not used.

Esper said he had no knowledge of how the crowd had been dispersed, and was surprised when Trump led him and other officials to St. John’s.

“Their understanding is they were going to Lafayette Park to review the efforts of the troops,” a defense official told CNBC.

US President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. - US President Donald Trump was due to make a televised address to the nation on Monday after days of anti-racism protests against police brutality that have erupted into violence. The White House announced that the president would make remarks imminently after he has been criticized for not publicly addressing in the crisis in recent days. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John’s Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

While Esper said he was unaware of any actions the National Guard took in dispersing the crowd, he expressed his admiration for their work.

“I am very proud of the National Guard. I wanted to go out and thank these young men and women,” he said.

Esper’s statement came as the president received widespread criticism over what many considered to be a press stunt.

The walk across the square came after the president’s statement from the Rose Garden minutes earlier, where he concluded by saying that he was going to visit a “very special place,” though he did not elaborate or take questions from reporters.

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