‘I Find That Hard To Believe’: Tension As Esper Claims Ignorance Of Who Cleared Lafayette Square

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 09: US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) testify before the US House Armed Services Committee hearing on 'Department of Defens... WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 09: US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (R) testify before the US House Armed Services Committee hearing on 'Department of Defense Authorities and Roles Related to Civilian Law Enforcement', July 9, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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July 9, 2020 5:16 p.m.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper maintained at a committee hearing Thursday that it’s “still unclear” to him who gave the order to clear D.C.’s Lafayette Square of protesters for President Donald Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. 

The widely-publicized violence involved the U.S. Park Police — possibly aided by D.C. police — storming the square near the White House and pepper-spraying peaceful protesters before the city’s curfew on June 1. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) interjected to ask the question between the back-and-forth of inquiries from Republican and Democratic lawmakers. 

“Who gave the order, and to whom, to clear the protesters out of that square?” he asked from his desk laden with papers and hand sanitizer.

After saying that the topic had come up a few times recently, Esper responded that “It’s still unclear to me who gave the order to clear the park at that moment in time.” 

“I find that hard to believe,” responded Smith, shaking his head and furrowing his brow. “I’m sorry but it’s a pretty big decision, a lot of people there, everyone’s there and it just sorta happened?” he asked incredulously.

“No, I’m not saying that, I’m just saying I don’t know,” Esper said. “I’ve never inquired, I’ve never pursued with anybody, because we, you know, get caught up with things more relevant to…” he trailed off. 

Esper offered that Major General William Walker, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, may have more insight. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, who was testifying alongside Esper, said that he too had no “personal knowledge” of who gave the order. 

Milley previously called his presence with Trump in the square, while he was wearing fatigues, a “mistake.” 

Esper offered the weak defense days after the episode that he didn’t know where he was going when he accompanied Trump on the photo-op, saying that he thought they were going to inspect a vandalized bathroom in the square.

Trump told Axios in late June that “They should be proud to walk alongside of their president for purposes of safety.”

Milley and Esper both emphasized, at various points in their testimony Thursday, that no active-duty troops were used in policing the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. 

Washington D.C. became a focal point for debate over the use of force in patrolling the mostly peaceful protesters, as the Trump administration employed its broad powers of intervention over the district to flood it with a medley of law enforcement officers, ranging from other states’ National Guards to officers from the Bureau of Prisons. 

An “after-action report” examining the behavior of National Guard troops in D.C. is expected to be handed over to Congress early next week. One Guard tactic that has been especially criticized was the use of low-flying helicopters to scatter the protesters.

The White House, for its part, has said it has “no regrets” for how the square was cleared.

“We stand by those actions,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters.

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