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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 TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE during his heavily criticized Monday evening photo-op in front of a vandalized church, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperCORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report Female generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report Overnight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyDC Guard chief: Approval to deploy on Jan. 6 took more than 3 hours Joint Chiefs chairman: Military response on Jan. 6 was 'super fast' Female generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report 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 SmithHigh alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday Overnight Defense: Tim Kaine moves to claw back war powers authority | Study on sexual harassment and assault in the military Commissioners tasked with scrubbing Confederate base names sworn-in at first meeting 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 KaineOvernight Defense: DC Guard chief testifies about hampered Capitol attack response | US contractor dies of heart attack after Iraq rocket attack | Pentagon watchdog finds 'inappropriate conduct' by ex-White House doctor Biden reignites war powers fight with Syria strike Bipartisan group of senators introduces bill to rein in Biden's war powers 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.