Esper revises account of what he knew about Trump's church photo op

Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee and Rich Schapiro

Revising an earlier account, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he was aware of the Monday night plan to visit a Washington church — where President Donald Trump posed for photos holding a Bible — but he didn't know what would happen when they arrived.

"I did know that following the president's remarks on Monday evening that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St John's Episcopal Church," Esper said at a news briefing. "What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when I arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there."

The account amounted to a revision of what he told NBC News on Tuesday night. It also diverged from what a Pentagon official had said earlier Tuesday.

In the NBC News interview, Esper said he was aware of the plan to observe the vandalized bathroom in Lafayette Square and believed they were also going to speak with troops. But Esper didn't make it clear that he knew about the trip to the church.

"I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops," Esper said in the exclusive Tuesday night interview.

"I didn't know where I was going," he added.

After the article was published, a Pentagon spokesman said Esper had been that the church, which was damaged by fire the night before, was one of the sites they planned to view. The spokesman reiterated that Esper didn't know that the president was going to use it as a photo opportunity.

Esper's remarks about the Monday events have fixed attention on Trump's widely criticized visit to St. John's Church. Officers used flash-bang grenades to clear out peaceful protesters before Trump and a group of senior administration officials and aides walked across Lafayette Square to the historic church.

Speaking Wednesday, Esper did not directly answer a reporter's question about whether he regretted participating in the presidential photo opportunity.

"Look, I do everything I can to try and stay apolitical and try to stay out of situations that may appear political," Esper said. "Sometimes, I'm successful, and sometimes I'm not as successful."

Esper also reiterated what he told NBC News on Tuesday night about having had no knowledge of the plans to clear the area of protesters.

"I was not aware of the law enforcement plans for the park," Esper said Wednesday. "I was not briefed on them, nor should I expect to be."

Esper's account of the church visit Monday night also conflicted with a version a defense official had provided earlier Tuesday.

Speaking with reporters, the official said Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were caught by surprise when Trump led them to the church for a staged visit.

"Their understanding is they were going into Lafayette Park to review the efforts of the troops," a defense official said.

Milley and Esper were on their way to the FBI's Washington field office to monitor protests with Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray when they were diverted to the White House to update the president. After the briefing, Trump delivered an address in the Rose Garden in which he threatened to deploy the military to quell the unrest over the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Trump ended the speech by saying he was going to pay his respects "to a very, very special place," but he did not elaborate.

The official said Trump, who held up a Bible for a photo op outside the church, did not walk out of the White House with it, so they had no warning.

The photo op sparked outrage from lawmakers and religious leaders, including the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

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Budde said Trump's staged visit to St. John's "was an abuse of the spiritual tools and symbols of our traditions and of our sacred space."

"He didn't come to church to pray. He didn't come to church to offer condolences to those who are grieving," Budde said Tuesday in an interview with Craig Melvin on NBC's "TODAY" show. "He didn't come to commit to healing our nation, all the things that we would expect and long for from the highest leader in the land."

Several former military officials criticized Milley for appearing on the streets of Washington in combat fatigues amid mass protests.

Sources told NBC News that Trump's unannounced walk to the church "was his idea" because he "wanted the visual." The president was frustrated by news reports that Secret Service officers ushered him to the White House bunker during Friday night's unrest, the sources said.