KEY POINTS

  • Mark Esper said he didn't know about Trump's photo op at St. John's Episcopal Church
  • The Defense Secretary thought they were on their way to check the damage at the Lafayette Square
  • Army Gen. Mark Milley also said he was unaware of what transpired moments before Trump left the White House grounds

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he didn't know President Donald Trump would lead him and the other White House officials at the St. John’s Episcopal Church to a controversial photo opportunity, following the POTUS’ first nationwide address regarding the widespread protests and riots.

On Monday (June 1), a crowd of protesters at the Lafayette Square was allegedly dispersed with tear gas canisters and pepper balls as the president made his way to the church from the White House Rose Garden, which sparked outrage among the public. 

In an interview with NBC News, Esper said he didn't get any advance notice of the president's plans. Trump had held a Bible up as he stood in front of the historical church.

"I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,” the secretary said. “I didn’t know where I was going," he added, saying that he thought they were going to see the damage of the vandalism that happened at Lafayette Square.

Esper also said he was looking forward to speaking with National Guard members to show his appreciation for their hard work.

US President Donald Trump, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper US President Donald Trump, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Photo: AFP / JIM WATSON

Pentagon officials distanced themselves from the president's actions. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley, said he was unaware of what transpired moments before Trump left the White House grounds. The officials also did not see the president bring a Bible.

"Their understanding was that they were going out of the White House to go into Lafayette Park to review the efforts to address the protests," an unnamed Pentagon official told CNBC. "The Secretary and the chairman were both actually heading to the Washington Field Office of the FBI to be co-located with the director of the FBI and the Attorney General to observe and provide leadership for response efforts last evening."

This incident came as Pentagon’s James Miller announced his resignation as the undersecretary of the agency’s science board after he accused Esper of betraying his oath of office by joining the POTUS for the photo-op and allowing the forcible crowd dispersal.

"You must have thought long and hard about where that line should be drawn. I must now ask: If last night’s blatant violations do not cross the line for you, what will?" Miller wrote in his resignation letter to Esper.

The White House has not yet responded to Esper or Milley's statements.