WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump yesterday said he did not ask for protesters to be moved out before he walked to a historic church in Washington that had been partially burned, to pose for photos with a Bible and top aides.
"They didn't use tear gas," Mr Trump told Fox News Radio, contradicting reports by a large number of protesters and reporters that tear gas was deployed to move them away from the church.
"Now, when I went, I didn't say 'Oh, move them out.' I didn't know who was there."
People at the scene, including journalists and a priest at the church who was forcibly removed, have described the riot-control agents the police used as tear gas.
Retired senior military leaders have condemned their successors in the Trump administration for ordering military units to rout those peacefully protesting police violence near the White House.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were seen walking behind the President on Monday so that he could have his picture taken at the nearby church.
In so doing, Mr Esper, who described the country as a "battlespace" to be cleared, and Gen Milley, who wore combat fatigues on the streets of the capital, thrust the two million active-duty and reserve service members into the middle of a confrontation in which the "enemy" is not foreign, but domestic.
Earlier in the day, Mr Esper joined the President's call with governors, saying "we need to dominate the battlespace" - a comment that set off a torrent of criticism.
During a meeting in the Oval Office on Monday, which officials said became heated, Gen Milley and Attorney-General William Barr argued against invoking the Insurrection Act to override governors and send active-duty troops to states where there are protests.
They were able to get Mr Trump to hold off for now, but the President nonetheless ordered active-duty troops deployed to the one place where he did not have to go through governors: the District of Columbia.
Trying to defuse the controversy, Mr Esper said yesterday that he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active duty forces to quell civil unrest and added that he regretted using the word "battlespace" to describe areas gripped by protest.
The Pentagon has yet to say how many soldiers it is deploying to Washington, as per Mr Trump's orders. Defence Department officials have given varying numbers, from 500 to "thousands".
More than 40 per cent of active-duty and reserve personnel are people of colour, and orders to confront the protesters troubled many.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump yesterday denied media reports that he was rushed for his safety to the White House bunker while protests raged in the streets outside.
"Well, that was a false report," Mr Trump said on the Fox News Radio show. "I was there for a tiny, little short period of time. It was much more for an inspection."
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG