US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, a Trump appointee, on Tuesday said that he was not aware of the destination of President Donald Trump when he accompanied the president on a walk from the White House across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the president posed for a widely-criticized photo-op in front of the historic church.
“I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,” Esper told NBC News on Tuesday night. “I didn't know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened”.
Earlier in the day, a senior Pentagon official told reporters that Esper and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, were not aware that they would be accompanying Trump on his visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“They were not aware that the park police and law enforcement had made a decision to clear the square,” the official said of Esper and Milley, adding that the two Pentagon leaders were attending a meeting in the White House regarding Trump’s recent decision to deploy US military assets to states to handle the ongoing protests across the country.
On Monday, Trump said that he would deploy US military forces to states that have not invited the National Guard in sufficient numbers to “dominate” the streets; the president's idea to deal with the ongoing protests across the country over the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Following these remarks, Trump, joined by a group of top officials within his administration, walked from the White House across Lafayette Park, where protesters had just been dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades. The president then stood in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, damaged in a fire on Sunday night, and posed for a prearranged photo opportunity while holding up a Christian bible.
On 25 May, an African-American resident of Minneapolis named George Floyd was killed by a white police officer while being arrested. The officer who killed Floyd, identified as Derek Chauvin, put his knee on the victim's neck and kept it there for over 8 minutes, even after Floyd gasped “can't breathe” and begged for air.
The tragic has incident has triggered ongoing nationwide demonstrations across the US and in many international cities.
All four officers involved in Floyd's arrest and death were quickly fired after the incident, and a few days later, as protests spiraled out of control, Chauvin was subsequently arrested on third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.