Trump at St. John's Episcopal Church
Trump at St. John's Episcopal Church (Photo: White House/Flickr)

In his new tell-all book, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper recalled the Bible photo-op that former President Donald Trump orchestrated outside of St. John's Episcopal Church during the summer before the election.

After a series of police slayings of unarmed Black men, protests erupted around the country, including in the nation's capitol. Outside of the White House, just across the street, angry protesters gathered, throwing things into windows and setting fires to trash cans and cars which ultimately spread.

As community leaders and the family of George Floyd spoke out for calm, a group of peaceful protesters continued their anger at the White House. Things had finally begun to quiet down and a curfew was issued for 7 p.m. that evening. Prior to that, however, the Park Police went into full attack mode on the protesters, rushing toward them on horseback, deploying tear gas and clearing the area around Lafayette Square. Reporters were attacked, namely, an Australian new crew that was filmed as an officer used a body shield on the camera person.

Esper recalled his urgency to get to the FBI command center and visit some of the troops that were staged throughout the city. The White House called, demanding that he be there instead. With lights and sirens, Esper described rushing back to the White House only to stand outside of the Oval Office with various other Cabinet officials waiting for the president. No one would explain what was going on, so Esper said he had things to do and was going to leave.

An aide quickly explained Trump was going to make a statement and then walk to the church to survey the damage. With other Cabinet officials there, Esper said he began pulling them aside to chat about things in an effort to get some work done while standing around.

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"Ivanka was looking at a few Bibles sitting on a table—something I had never seen before in the Oval Office—and eventually grabbed one. I wondered what that was about," he recalled.

The group was then led through the White House where they met up with Trump.

“Come on,” Trump said, “Are you all ready to go?”

Esper said he asked what they were doing, but was ignored. He recalled looking to Gen. Mark Milley, who was still in his field uniform, and the "uncertainty." Then it became obvious as a spray of press walked backwards in front of Trump through an organized path of police lined up for a photo-op.

“I think we’ve been duped,” Esper said to Milley. He wrote, "we were being used."

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He noted that throughout the incident he tried to find a way out, to get away from the group, but claimed he was concerned about the optics, saying it would have been obvious.

"What would happen next? What would he say? What would he do? I didn’t know. I’m not sure anyone did other than Trump. Part of me envisioned—hoped—that the church’s pastor would join the president, that they would greet each other warmly," Esper fantasized, "that they would walk around and inspect the damage, that maybe they would say a prayer together, and then they would jointly speak to the media about repairing the church and healing a troubled country."

He wrote that he shared the fantasy with a White House staffer weeks later, still fresh in the non-stop news cycle. The aide said, “W. or Obama would have done that, but not this guy.”

Esper's book, A Sacred Oath, is available on sale Tuesday.

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