Defense Secretary Mark Esper broke with his boss, the president of the United States, on Wednesday, distancing himself from the administration’s spasmodic response to the largely peaceful protests that have unfolded in Washington, D.C., New York City, and dozens of other towns and cities nationwide.
Esper faced withering criticism for appearing alongside President Trump on Monday during staged photo op outside a church near the White House, and for potentially allowing the use of military personnel to perform law enforcement duties to respond to the protests. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in the Atlantic that he was “sickened” by the sight of security officers using force to remove protesters and criticized Esper’s use of the term “battlespace” during a call with governors about how to respond to protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. On Tuesday evening, the Washington Post published the resignation letter of a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, former Undersecretary of Defense James Miller, who accused Esper of violating his oath of office when he participated in Trump’s photo op.
At his Wednesday press conference, Esper, the former top lobbyist for weapons contractor Raytheon, told reporters that he didn’t realize he was being used as arm candy in the president’s Bible-toting photo op on Monday. He backed away from the use of the phrase “battlespace.” And he said, in a rebuke to the president, that he did not support the use of the Insurrection Act to authorize the use of military forces to quell the protests.
“Keeping apolitical means there are times to speak up and there are times not to,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. “What happened to [George] Floyd happens way too often in this country, and we often don’t speak of these things in the Department. As events escalated in past 72 hours, the moment had reached a point where it required a clear message to the Department about our approach.”
Esper was one of several cabinet officials who joined Trump on Monday to walk from the White House to nearby St. John’s Church. To make way from Trump and his gaggle, law enforcement officers used chemical agents and brute force to move protesters who had gathered to protest police violence and racial injustice. Standing outside St. John’s, a stonefaced Trump held up a Bible and posed for photographs before returning to the White House.
Esper now says that he was unaware that he was part of a presidential photo op. “I was aware we were going to the church,” he said. “I didn’t know the photo op was happening.” He also said he “was not aware” of the aggressive tactics law enforcement officers planned to use to clear the way for Trump’s path to the church.
Esper also distanced himself from the use of low-flying helicopters to disperse protesters in D.C. and said the tactic was now under investigation. “I think when you’re landing that low in the city it looks unsafe to me, but I have to learn more about what’s going on,” he said. “It would not be unsafe if it were a Medivac or if they were picking up someone who was injured. It’s my understanding that it was not a Medivac mission.”
On one level, Esper is distancing himself from the actions of the president at the same time the president have faced withering scrutiny for his incendiary comments (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”) and authoritarian tendencies, e.g., using brute force to clear protesters for a photo op. It’s also telling that one of the most powerful members of Trump’s cabinet, the secretary of defense, went public with this distancing act, believing it necessary to push back on the president during one of the most fraught moments of the past three years.
But perhaps most striking was finally hearing from a top Trump administration official words that tried to meet this moment, words that the president himself seems incapable of saying. “Racism is real in America,” he said, “and we must do our best to recognize it, confront it, and eradicate it.”