Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Wednesday pushed back on what he described as “inaccurate” reporting by reporters from NBC News and other outlets about President Donald Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church and the alleged use of tear gas.
Media outlets across the world claimed that tear gas was used against protesters in Washington on Monday without providing evidence. But Esper told reporters at the Pentagon: “National Guard forces did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas into the crowd, as reported.”
The statement came after United States Park Police acting Chief Gregory Monahan said neither his officers nor other law enforcement officers used tear gas against demonstrators in Lafayette Park. Monahan also revealed that protesters began hurling projectiles and ignored warnings before force, including smoke canisters and pepper balls, was used.
The action was taken shortly before Trump and some top administration officials walked through the area.
Esper said he wasn’t briefed on the plans, nor should he have been.
Esper specifically addressed a story from NBC, without naming the outlet, which claimed that Esper said he wasn’t given notice before Trump led him and other officials to the church.
“I found it to be inaccurate in parts, so I want to state for all to hear what happened that Monday afternoon,” Esper said.
“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 at Lafayette Park and St. John’s Episcopal Church. What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when we arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there,” he said.
NBC’s story said Esper was given “no notice” before he, Trump, and others went to the church.
NBC didn’t respond to an inquiry on whether the story would be updated and why the article didn’t include Monahan’s statement and whether it would be added.
NBC was one of dozens of media outlets that claimed tear gas was used, without providing evidence.
Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to meet with and thank the members of the National Guard who were on duty in Lafayette Park. That wasn’t possible during the trip to the church, he said.
“But I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with our Guardsmen later that evening as I moved around the city to many of the locations at which they were posted,” Esper added.
Asked if he regretted traveling with Trump, Esper said: “I do everything I can to stay apolitical and stay out of situations that may appear political. Sometimes I’m successful in doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful.”
An internal investigation is underway regarding a National Guard helicopter hovering low over protesters, Esper also said, including who requested the helicopter being used.
“I got a report back that they were asked by law enforcement to look at a National Guard checkpoint to see if there were protesters around,” Esper said. The inquiry will uncover what the facts are.