Defense secretary reverses claim that he thought Trump's 'special place' was a bathroom

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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper now admits he knew he was going to a church where Trump posed with a Bible for a photo-op on Monday.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday partially walked back his claim that he had no idea he was going to be part of Donald Trump's widely condemned photo-op on Monday night.

In that incident, peaceful protesters in Washington's Lafayette Park were tear-gassed by military police to clear the way for Trump to walk from the White House to a church to hold up a Bible for the cameras.

Esper, one of the administration officials who walked alongside Trump through the park to St. John's Episcopal Church for the stunt, had told NBC News on Tuesday that he thought he was going to view a vandalized bathroom in the park and had had no idea about the photo-op.

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But at a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Esper said he did know he was going to the church, but claimed he hadn't known Trump would use the visit as a photo-op.

"I did know that we were going to the church; I was not aware that a photo-op was happening," Esper told reporters, adding, "My aim is to keep the department out of politics and to stay apolitical."

Esper continues to try to distance himself from the stunt, which has been condemned by religious leaders, Democrats, and a few elected Republicans.

In the interview with NBC News on Tuesday, Esper said he thought he was going to view vandalism by some demonstrators and talk to troops whom Trump had called in to quell violent demonstrations. He also told NBC News that he did not know the protesters near the White House, who were peacefully calling for an end to police brutality against black Americans in the wake of yet another white police killing of an unarmed black man, had been tear-gassed for Trump's photo-op.

"I didn't know where I was going," Esper said then. "I wanted to see how much damage actually happened."

Prior to his stunt on Monday, Trump gave a speech in the White House Rose Garden vowing to end violent protests.

As Trump delivered his speech, the sound of flash-bang grenades used by the military police could be heard in the background. He ended his remarks by saying he was going to visit a "very, very special place" — which turned out to be the church across from the White House.

It's unclear why Esper would've thought a public toilet fit that description.

Trump and his administration continue to insist that the stunt was not a photo-op, and that peaceful protesters were not tear-gassed.

Trump stood at the church for just a few minutes as he held up a Bible for cameras. He did not say a prayer, nor did he offer remarks.

And protesters were tear-gassed: Gregory Monahan, the acting chief of the United States Park Police, confirmed they used "smoke canisters and pepper balls" to disperse the crowd.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies pepper balls as tear gas.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.