Top military leaders did not plan to attend Trump's White House 'event,' Pentagon says

Elizabeth Howe
June 02, 2020 - 12:45 pm
Donald Trump, White House

Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley -- in his battle uniform -- stood with President Donald Trump at a White House press briefing yesterday during which Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to "quell violence" across the nation.

But senior defense officials are now saying Esper and Milley were just passing through downtown D.C. and did not originally plan to attend. 

Trump threatens to deploy active-duty troops if states don't stop violent protests

Trump's speech and subsequent photo in front of St. John's Church across the street from the White House Monday night have been criticized as a political stunt. Protestors were reportedly tear-gassed in order to clear the way for the president to walk across to the church. And Esper and Milley walked behind him. 

Senior defense officials said Tuesday that Esper's and Milley's participation in the "event at the White House" was not planned -- they were en route to the FBI field office in downtown to D.C. to "observe and provide leadership" when they were asked to reroute to the White House to provide an update to the president. The unintended White House trip could explain Milley's uniform -- rather than the dress uniform that service members typically wear to the White House, Milley wore battle fatigues. 

Following the update, when the president "indicated an interest in viewing the troops," Esper and Milley followed him outside. According to officials, Esper and Milley were unaware of the president's plans to clear the area and take a photo in front of the church. The photo op was criticized the church's bishop and the city's mayor, among others.

After the event, Esper and Milley walked the streets of downtown D.C. It is unclear whether they ever made it to the FBI headquarters as was the intended destination of their outing.

Earlier this week, Esper was recorded on a White House briefing with the president and governors referring to protests in American cities as a "battlespace." Senior defense officials aimed to defend this word choice, saying that, after 20 years in the service, Esper tends towards a "parlance unique to the professional arms and the military profession." His word choice did not indicate support for Trump's intentions to militarize efforts to suppress protests. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, about 20,400 National Guard members had been activated in 28 states to respond to "civil unrest." Senior defense officials said several states agreed to send their own National Guard troops to the nation's capital to bolster the already 1,300 Guard members activated there in addition to civilian law enforcement. Other states declined. This is not unusual, defense officials said, as states must first carefully consider their need for resources.

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said no request for additional armed personnel was made -- the Pentagon made these requests without the city's input.

“We did not request an armed guard for any purpose in the District of Columbia,” Bowser said Tuesday. "We become concerned about any police or non-police force in our District that does not share our values and are not accountable to the police chief or to me.”

In addition to National Guard personnel, active-duty troops have been deployed to the national capital region. 

Active-duty military police are being sent to D.C. in response to protests, Pentagon says

At this time, senior defense officials said these active-duty troops remain outside the city lines of the nation's capital. 


Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter at @ECBHowe

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