WASHINGTON — A senior Defense official told reporters Tuesday that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the nation's highest-ranking military officer did not intend to participate in President Donald Trump's photo-op in front of St. John's Church, which had been set on fire by protesters the night before.
"The Secretary and the chairman were both actually heading to the Washington Field Office of the FBI to be co-located with the director of the FBI and the Attorney General to observe and provide leadership for response efforts last evening," explained a senior Defense official on a call with Pentagon reporters.
"They were not aware that the Park Police and law enforcement had made a decision to clear the square. And once they began that walk off the White House grounds with the president, their understanding was that they were going out of the White House to go into Lafayette Park to review the efforts to address the protests," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
During a White House address Monday night, in which Trump threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military if states failed to quell demonstrations, riot police forcibly cleared protesters out of Lafayette Square, a public park in front of the president's residence.
Once the protesters were forcibly cleared, Trump walked through the square with several members of his Cabinet as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley. The president then stood in front of the historic church holding a Bible and posing for photographs. He later motioned to members of his Cabinet to stand alongside him for more pictures.
Esper, who has previously said that he would preserve the U.S. military's apolitical nature, entered the frame and stood alongside Trump for the photo-op.
Esper and Milley were later seen engaging with National Guard members responding to the civil unrest.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.