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Pentagon: Esper, Milley 'not aware' of Trump's church photo-op ahead of time

Pentagon: Esper, Milley 'not aware' of Trump's church photo-op ahead of time
© BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Senior Pentagon officials did not know ahead of time they would accompany President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE during his heavily criticized Monday evening photo-op in front of a vandalized church, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTop military officers cleared to return to Pentagon after quarantine Indonesia rebuffed US proposal for refueling spy planes: report Overnight Defense: Supreme Court to hear case on diversion of Pentagon funds to border wall | Biden campaign cutting retired general from ad after objection | Trump's arms control talks with Russia hit wall MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyTop military officers cleared to return to Pentagon after quarantine Overnight Defense: Supreme Court to hear case on diversion of Pentagon funds to border wall | Biden campaign cutting retired general from ad after objection | Trump's arms control talks with Russia hit wall Biden campaign removing retired general from ad after his complaint MORE — who both followed behind Trump on his walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church after law enforcement cleared the area of peaceful protesters — had been at the White House to update the president on military readiness, a senior defense official told reporters from multiple outlets.

“As that meeting concluded, the president indicated an interest in viewing the troops that were outside, and the secretary and chairman went with him to do so,” the official said.

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About 1,200 National Guard troops as well as active-duty military police were activated in the nation’s capital to back up law enforcement, who used tear gas and smoke bombs to clear protesters from Lafayette Square before the city's 7 p.m. curfew so Trump could walk to and from the church.

Esper and Milley “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,” the official said. 

Esper shortly thereafter appeared alongside Trump and other administration officials for photographs in front of the church. 

Milley later walked the streets of Washington, D.C., to survey the National Guard's curfew enforcement, saying the military was there to protect freedom of speech and that he was “seeing how well they're doing.”

The two top Pentagon officials have since been heavily criticized for their presence as protesters clashed with police and Secret Service agents for another night in response to last week's killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis.

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More than 20,400 Guardsmen have been activated in 28 states and D.C. to assist in quelling the protests. Another 1,500 Guardsmen from Indiana, South Carolina and Tennessee were expected to arrive in the nation’s capital on Tuesday. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithBlue Origin takes one small step toward being a competitor to SpaceX Overnight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy Watchdog to audit Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds on defense contractors MORE (D-Wash.) said he has “serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protesters” and that he had called Milley and Esper to testify before the panel “to explain this domestic engagement to the American people.”

And Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats have no case against Amy Coney Barrett — but that won't stop them Pence-Harris debate draws more than 50M viewers, up 26 percent from 2016 Five takeaways from the vice presidential debate MORE (D-Va.) plans to introduce an amendment to the annual defense policy bill seeking to prevent Trump from deploying the military against protesters.

Trump, meanwhile, has vowed to mobilize “all available federal resources, civilian and military” to clamp down on the nationwide protests, urging governors to “dominate” their streets with National Guard deployments. 

He also threatened to send troops to American cities if governors did not take such actions.