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Esper says he didn't know about plan to disperse protesters

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperBiden plans to keep Wray as FBI director: report ISIS Task Force director resigns from Pentagon post in continued post-election purge The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes MORE said Tuesday that he had not been aware of plans to disperse a crowd of protesters the previous evening before President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE walked through the area to pose for photos in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Esper told NBC News in an interview that he was given no advance notice when Trump led him and other administration officials to St. John’s after police deployed pepper balls and smoke canisters to clear Lafayette Square of demonstrators shortly before the city's 7 p.m. curfew.

“I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,” Esper told NBC News, referencing a bathroom in the park that had been vandalized the previous day. “I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.”

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Pentagon officials had earlier said both Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley were caught by surprise.

The pair "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, they continued with him," a senior defense official told reporters.

Trump, after delivering remarks saying he would use the National Guard to restore order if states were unable to, said he was leaving to visit a “very, very special place,” but a Pentagon official said the president did not leave the White House with the Bible he later posed with, leaving Defense officials unsure of where he was headed.

Esper told NBC he was eager to greet members of the National Guard and thank them for their work in response to both the unrest and the coronavirus response. “I wanted to go out and thank these young men and women,” he said.

The interview comes the same day James Miller, who served as the U.S. undersecretary of Defense for policy from 2012 to 2014, resigned his position on the Pentagon’s science board, accusing Esper of violating his oath of office by backing the dispersal of the protesters.