Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent a Wednesday morning press conference in clean up mode following a flood of criticism for his role in Donald Trump’s photo op debacle Monday at a historic D.C. church.
Esper kicked off by admitting he had lied during in a press interview Tuesday in which he had initiated a cover up. During that appearance, Esper told NBC News that he “didn’t know” where he was going as he followed Trump across a patch Lafayette Square Park—which had just been forcibly cleared of peaceful protesters—to St. John’s Church. But during Wednesday’s press conference, Esper contradicted his own account.
“I did know that we were going to the church; I was not aware that a photo op was happening,” Esper told reporters during Act II of his clean up. So Esper effectively pinned blame for the entire photo op debacle fully on the White House.
Esper also laid blame for the targeting of civilians in the park entirely at the feet of law enforcement, not the military, saying the clearing of the park was “not a military action.”
“I was not aware of law enforcement’s plans for the park,” Esper claimed. But he declined to criticize the use of force, saying that he assumed “they took whatever actions” they felt were “necessary.” Esper added that the National Guard was simply there “in support of law enforcement.”
Esper has come under blistering criticism from former military brass for becoming a prop in Trump’s authoritarian Bible-thumping photo op just after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters to clear a path for Trump. Former under secretary of defense for policy James Miller even resigned Tuesday, writing to Esper, “You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead, you visibly supported it.”
Beyond blaming others for his role in what could become one of the defining moments of Trump’s presidency, Esper said he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act that would allow Trump to deploy the military on U.S. soil, calling it a “last resort.”
Esper also defended his assertion on a phone call Monday that governors needed to “dominate the battlespace,” saying the word was simply part of the military “lexicon,” and adding, “it’s not a phrase focused on people.” Nonetheless, some former military officers objected to Esper’s use of that term specifically. “The ‘battle space’ of America???” Gen. Tony Thomas, former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, wrote on Twitter in response to the quote. “Not what America needs to hear … ever.”
Asked about the use of a military helicopter to intimidate protesters later Monday night, Esper said it was being investigated. But pressed on the point, he added, “When you’re landing that low in the city, it looks unsafe to me.”
Esper ended the press conference with a plea for troops to stay “apolitical,” a message he began transmitting in writing Tuesday night. He claimed his “aim” was to keep the department out of politics, as if he hadn’t spent all of Monday stroking Trump’s militaristic fantasies about “dominating.”
“I ask that you remember at all times our commitment as a department and as public servants to stay apolitical in these turbulent days,” Esper said.
Heckuva job, Esper.