Vice President Mike Pence said in a radio interview Friday (June 12) that he was not with Donald Trump when the president walked across to the St. John’s Church because he was “encouraged to stay at the White House out of an abundance of caution.”
Pence, however, said that he would have been “happy to walk shoulder to shoulder” with Trump but protocols dictated that U.S. presidents and vice presidents should not be in the same place at the same time, particularly during a volatile time.
Trump’s walk to church on June 2 drew criticisms after he posed in front of St. John’s holding a Bible for a photo opportunity. A statement from the Park Police revealed that protesters near the church were dispersed using smoke canisters and pepper balls to clear the path for the president.
The White House insisted the police didn’t use any tear gas so that the president could pass, while Attorney General William Barr said that the pepper balls did not contain chemical irritants.
Following the incident, Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recorded message for the National Defense University on Thursday that he should not have been with Trump for his walk to the church.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Gen. Milley said.
Asked to comment about Gen. Milley’s statement, Pence said that he holds “great respect” for Milley “to speak for himself about his presence there.” However, the vice president won’t say whether he agreed or not with Milley’s comment that the church walk was a mistake.
“I’ll leave Gen. Milley to his own judgment in that regard,” the vice president said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was also with Trump and Milley on that day, but said in a press conference days after the church walk that he was not aware there would be a photo-op. He thought that they were headed to Lafayette Park and at St. John’s Episcopal Church to review the damage amid the George Floyd protests.
Meanwhile, Trump told Fox News on Friday that statements from his top officials about that controversial photo-op were not significant to him.
“If that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine,” the president said.