Defense Secretary Esper Says He Didn’t Know Trump Was Planning Church ‘Photo Op,’ Doesn’t Support Invoking Insurrection Act


Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke to the press Wednesday morning, to address controversies over President Donald Trump‘s actions and comments in response to the protests that have occurred across the country over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, as well as the National Guard’s involvement.

Esper began his remarks by expressing his condolences to Floyd’s family and calling his death a “horrible crime,” adding that all four of the officers involved “should be held accountable for his murder.” So far, the officers have been fired from the Minneapolis Police Department, but only Derek Chauvin has been charged with any crime.

Trump has said and tweeted a few times in recent days that he supports using the Insurrection Act to send the National Guard into states to quell protests, if the states are not responding strongly enough. Esper addressed this issue, stating his opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act for this purpose:

I have always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations, in support of local law enforcement. I say this not only as Secretary of Defense but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard.

The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.

Esper also addressed the controversy over Trump’s walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church for what has been roundly condemned as a political photo op, and the actions of the National Guardsmen, park police, and other local law enforcement to forcibly push back protesters before the president walked to the church.

Esper said that he did not know the president’s intention in walking to the church, and that he has tried to conduct his job in an “apolitical” manner as possible.

He also claimed that the National Guard did not fire tear gas or rubber bullets at the protesters, and were only wearing helmets and personal protective equipment “for their own protection, not to serve as some form of intimidation.” CNN later pointed out that video showed that the park police had fired pepper balls at protesters.

For a Defense Secretary who has said he wishes to remain as “apolitical” as possible, the politics of the situation are all but impossible to ignore. The president has not been in the habit of calmly condoning public criticism from his appointees, and Esper broke from Trump’s narrative in several key aspects with today’s remarks: not only by rejecting the suggestion that the administration invoke the Insurrection Act, but also in calling the walk to St. Paul’s a “photo op,” a label that Trump has denied.

Watch the video above, via CNN.

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