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Pence says he didn't accompany Trump to St. John's 'out of an abundance of caution'

Vice President Pence said Friday he did not accompany President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE to St. John’s Episcopal Church last week for a photo opportunity out of “an abundance of caution” but said he would have been “happy” to join him.

“I was at the White House. And I was actually encouraged to stay at the White House out of an abundance of caution. It was obviously a volatile environment at moments, and so I was encouraged to remain,” Pence told CBS News Radio.

“But I would have been happy to walk shoulder to shoulder across Lafayette Park with President Trump,” he added.

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Vice presidents and presidents are sometimes encouraged to not be in the same location at the same time. 

Trump visited the church, which is across from the White House complex, after it had been vandalized and partially burned the night before. He later posed in front of the church with a Bible.

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However, the visit sparked widespread backlash because it came immediately after largely peaceful protesters were forcibly dispersed from the area. Officers were seen using smoke canisters and pepper balls to quell the demonstration, leading critics to say undue force was used to set up a photo-op for the president.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley has expressed regret for joining Trump during his walk to the church, saying his appearance could give the perception that the military was being used for political purposes.

“I should not have been there,” Milley said during a recorded message aired at the graduation of the National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” 

“We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation and we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the essence of our republic.”

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Former Trump Defense chief Esper to join McCain Institute CORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report MORE, meanwhile, sought to explain his role in the event during a press conference last week. The Defense chief said he was aware of the president's destination but said he didn’t know it would be a photo-op.

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“I did know that following the president's remarks on Monday evening that many of us were wanting to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St. John's Episcopal Church,” Esper told reporters. “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.”

Trump shrugged off the statements from the military leaders during an interview on Fox News released Friday, saying, "If that's the way they feel, I think that's fine."

The demonstrators near the White House and elsewhere were protesting the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.