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Esper seeks to explain participation in White House photo-op

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperCotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military Navy denies NFL rookie Cameron Kinley's request to delay commission to play for Tampa Bay Overnight Defense: Pentagon keeps Trump-era ban on flying LGBT flags | NATO chief urges 'consequences' for Belarus MORE told reporters Wednesday he was aware of President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE’s destination when he accompanied him to a photo-op at a church across from the White House on Monday, a visit that came after peaceful protesters were aggressively swept from the area by police.

Esper said during his press conference that he was not aware the visit would be a photo-op, decried the killing of George Floyd as a "horrible crime," and broke with the president in saying he is opposed to the invocation of a U.S. law that would allow the U.S. military to be used for domestic law enforcement. 

“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 said. “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.”

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The explanation, given in a hastily called news conference, appeared to be an effort to stem growing criticism of Pentagon leadership. Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who was wearing combat fatigues, accompanied Trump to the photo-op.

Video shows protesters being cleared from the area by aggressive police forces that included the National Guard, the Secret Service and the U.S. Park Police. Batons, flash-bang grenades and chemical agents were used to move the crowd.

On Tuesday, Pentagon officials told reporters on a background call that neither Esper nor Milley had planned to go to the church nor were they aware of the police clearing the park of protesters.

In an interview with NBC News later Tuesday, Esper said he thought he was going to be accompanying Trump to talk to troops and survey vandalism at a bathroom in Lafayette Square near the church.

Protests have spread nationwide since last week when George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in Minneapolis police custody. An officer, who now faces third-degree murder charges, knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Some of the protests have turned violent or taken place amid looting. 

In his news conference, Esper directly addressed Floyd’s killing for the first time.

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“The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime,” Esper said. “The officers on the scene that they should be held accountable for his murder. It is a tragedy that we've seen repeat itself too many times. With great sympathy, I want to extend deepest condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the department. Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it and to eradicate it.”

Pressed by reporters why he did not condemn Floyd’s killing sooner, Esper said he was attempting to keep the military out of politics.

“Remaining apolitical means that there are times to speak up and times not to,” Esper said.

“As events have unfolded over the past few days, it became very clear that this is becoming a very combustible national issue,” he continued, adding he wanted to put out a message to the force first.

Esper’s memo to the force, released Tuesday night, said that “Americans who are frustrated, angry and seeking to be heard must be ensured that opportunity,” adding that service members must “stay apolitical in these turbulent days.” The memo made no mention of Floyd or racial injustices.

Esper also stressed Wednesday he was not briefed about law enforcement’s plans to clear the protesters from Lafayette Square for Trump’s church photo-op, adding he wouldn’t “expect to get a briefing on what the law enforcement community was planning to do with regard to the clearing the park.”

Esper insisted the National Guard did not participate in clearing the park.

“National Guard forces did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas into the crowd as reported,” he said. “Second, Guardsmen were instructed to wear helmets and personal protective equipment for their own protection, not to serve as some form of intimidation.”

Monday night also saw National Guard helicopters flying low to the ground on streets in D.C. to clear protesters in a move reminiscent of the military’s show-of-force tactic for clearing insurgents overseas. The D.C. Guard announced Tuesday night it would conduct an investigation into what happened.

Esper said Wednesday the officials did not determine until Tuesday afternoon that it was National Guard helicopters that conducted the maneuver and that “within an hour or so of learning of this” he directed Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyVice News promotes Micheal Learmonth to editor-in-chief Trump appointee endorses Christine Wormuth as Army secretary Overnight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech MORE to open an investigation.

“It looks unsafe to me,” Esper said of the helicopter, but added that “we have to find out all the facts, take it all in and let the Army do its work.”

Esper has also come under criticism for describing American cities and streets as a “battlespace” in a call between Trump and governors Monday.

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“I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper said during the call, according to leaked audio.

Esper said Wednesday he used the word battlespace not to threaten American citizens, but because it is “part of our military lexicon that I grew up with.” He also argued he was using the word in the context of complimenting Minnesota Gov. Tim WalzTim WalzMinnesota offering state fair tickets, fishing licenses to promote coronavirus vaccines Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers Minnesota House votes to legalize marijuana MORE on his response to the protests.

Still, he said, he would choose his words differently in hindsight.

“In retrospect I would use different wording so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we're militarizing the issue,” Esper said.