President Donald Trump confronted his defense secretary, Mark Esper, after the Pentagon chief publicly opposed the idea of deploying the military to contain protests, according to people familiar with the matter.
Separately, the president later asked top advisers if they thought Esper could still be effective in his position, two people familiar with the discussions said Wednesday night.
At a news conference in the afternoon, the president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, tiptoed around whether Esper’s job was safe, saying only that he remained in his post.
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon immediately responded to requests for comment on Wednesday night.
Esper met with Trump in the Oval Office after telling reporters at the Pentagon that using active-duty military forces to perform law enforcement within the U.S. is “a matter of last resort” and that the National Guard was better suited to the task.
On Monday, Trump had threatened to send military forces to cities and states that fail to quell violence spiraling from protests over the death in Minneapolis last week of a black man in police custody.
The defense chief also appeared to back away from his boss by saying that while he knew he would be joining Trump to walk into Lafayette Square in front of the presidential residence Monday, he was not aware of specific plans, including what would happen when the group reached St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Trump has been criticized by religious leaders and Democrats, as well as some Republicans and former military officials, for the visit to the historic church, where he stood briefly holding up a Bible after security forces cleared peaceful protesters from the area using pepper balls and smoke cannisters.
Esper said at the Pentagon on Wednesday that he thought he would be reviewing damage in the plaza and at the church, but wasn’t briefed on a specific plan since he was called back to the White House after heading toward a command center at the Department of Justice.
“I did know we were going to the church. I did not know a photo op was happening,” Esper said.
His remarks generated irritation at the White House, where three Trump aides who asked not to be identified said the secretary should have moderated his comments to draw less of a distinction with the president.
Later Wednesday, a blistering denunciation of Trump by his first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, was published by The Atlantic.
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