Politics

Defense official resigns from Pentagon post, slams Esper for role in Trump photo op

Key Points
  • In an extraordinary resignation letter, provided to The Washington Post, a Pentagon official resigned citing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper's role in President Donald Trump's photo op.
  • "You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead, you visibly supported it," James Miller, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in his resignation letter to Esper.
  • When asked Tuesday about Esper's decision to participate in the photograph, a senior Defense official said that the secretary and the nation's highest-ranking military officer were unaware of Trump's plan to take the picture.
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.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — "Where will you draw the line, and when will you draw it?"

In an extraordinary resignation letter, provided to The Washington Post, James Miller resigned from his post at the Pentagon's Defense Science Board.

Miller, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, cited Secretary of Defense Mark Esper's participation in President Donald Trump's Monday night photo op in front of St. John's Church. 

The resignation comes as the nation braced for its eighth night of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Here is part of the letter:

When I joined the Board in early 2014, after leaving government service as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, I again swore an oath of office, one familiar to you, that includes the commitment to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States . . . and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same."

You recited that same oath on July 23, 2019, when you were sworn in as Secretary of Defense. On Monday, June 1, 2020, I believe that you violated that oath. Law-abiding protesters just outside the White House were dispersed using tear gas and rubber bullets — not for the sake of safety, but to clear a path for a presidential photo op. You then accompanied President Trump in walking from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church for that photo.

President Trump's actions Monday night violated his oath to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," as well as the First Amendment "right of the people peaceably to assemble." You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead, you visibly supported it.

Anyone who takes the oath of office must decide where he or she will draw the line: What are the things that they will refuse to do? Secretary Esper, you have served honorably for many years, in active and reserve military duty, as Secretary of the Army, and now as Secretary of Defense. 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?

Miller ended the letter by saying, "I wish you the best, in very difficult times. The sanctity of the U.S. Constitution, and the lives of Americans, may depend on your choices."

The Pentagon did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

The presidential photo op

US President Donald Trump holds up a bible in front of St John's Episcopal church after walking across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images

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.

VIDEO1:1801:18
Trump visits St. John's Episcopal Church, which was set on fire last night

When asked Tuesday about Esper's decision to participate in the photograph, a senior Defense official said that the Secretary and the nation's highest-ranking military officer were unaware of Trump's plan to take the picture.

"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," added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a Tuesday night interview with NBC News, Esper said "I didn't know where I was going" when asked about the highly criticized photo opportunity. "I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops," he added.

The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

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