Defense Secretary Mark Esper claims he had no idea where he was going when Trump lead members of his administration on a walk to St. John's Episcopal Church for a controversial photo shoot.
He also insisted he had 'no idea' that force would be used to clear out peaceful protesters ahead of the staged trip.
Esper was seen alongside President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr as they surveyed damage outside the church Monday evening, after walking over the street from the White House.
The impromptu trip came immediately after law enforcement used tear gas, rubber bullets, and mounted officers to disperse hundreds of activists in Lafayette Square.
Historic St. John's was vandalized during violent demonstrations on Sunday night, but protesters were acting peacefully when they were forcefully removed to make way for Trump, Esper and Barr the following afternoon.
'I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,' Esper told NBC News Tuesday night, distancing himself from the display of force.
He added: 'I didn't know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.'
Defense Secretary Mark Esper (center) claims he had 'no idea' that force was going to be used to clear out protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. so that he and other members of the Trump Administration could survey damage at nearby St. John's Episcopal Church
Esper was seen alongside President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr outside the church Monday evening, shortly after law enforcement used tear gas, rubber bullets, and mounted officers to disperse hundreds of activists in the area
Pictures of the President posing with a Bible outside the historic church were widely criticized.
A Pentagon spokesman later clarified that Esper was aware that he would visit the church but didn't know the president would use it as a photo opportuunity, NBC reports.
Meanwhile, a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, revealed on Tuesday that Trump hoped to make the aggressive action in Washington an example for the rest of the country as protests about policing practices spill over into violence.
It was said to be conceived as a way to allow Trump to demonstrate himself as the 'law and order president' after he vowed to use the military to stop looting and violence in cities across the nation.
However, as a PR move it may have backfired, after global and national media broadcast images of shield-bearing and mounted police using force to clear Lafayette Park, an area where its use as a forum for demonstrations and speech has long been protected.
Mariann Budde, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington which oversees the church, said she was 'outraged' by the action. 'The president cleared the park and courtyard of our church… stood in front of St Johns as if it were spiritual validation and justification for a message that is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and God of justice,' she said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who had ordered a 7 pm curfew Monday, said she was 'shocked' that people who didn't seem to provoke attack were 'attacked' by federal law enforcement who cleared the way for Trump.
Riot police chase a man as they rush protestors to clear Lafayette Park and the area around it across from the White House for President Donald Trump to be able to walk through
Tear gas floats in the air as a line of police move demonstrators away from St. John's Church for Trump's visit
A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, revealed on Tuesday that Trump hoped to make the aggressive action in Washington an example for the rest of the country as protests about policing practices spill over into violence
President Trump walks in front of a graffiti filled wall on his way to visit St. John's Episcopal Church
The walk outside the White House gates – the first as president by the heavily-guarded Trump – came after he had been confined at home for more than a day.
Trump had been upset by the disclosure that Secret Service had taken him to bunker deep beneath the White House as police clashed with protesters Friday night, the Washington Post reported, and wondered why someone would disclose it to the press.
Although he was not there long, it clashed with the image of strength Trump usually likes to put forward.
Facing pressure to deliver a White House address, Trump instead decided to walk past a graffiti-prayed maintenance shack and tour the historic church, which had been scarred by fire amidst a spree of vandalism and looting Sunday night. The D.C. fire department was able to put out a blaze that broke out in the basement of the parish house adjacent to the church.
Longtime GOP operative Brendan Buck, a former spokesman for Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan when he was a vice presidential nominee, blasted the decision.
'We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,' he said.
'The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten,' he said, the Washington Post reported. He earlier tweeted what happened is 'immoral and abusive.'
Esper was later seen talking to troops outside The White House. He claims that was his intention all along, and he was unaware Trump was facilitating a photo op outside St. John's
Rival former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday blasted Trump's trip to the church 'in order to stage a photo-op,' and saying: 'We can be forgiven for believing the president is more interested in power than in principle.'
'The president held up the bible at St. John's church yesterday. I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it. 'He's preening and sweeping away all the guardrails that are protecting our democracy'.
Shortly before he left the White House grounds Monday to visit the church at 7:03 pm, Trump said from the Rose Garden he was 'taking swift and decisive action to protect our great capital, Washington, D.C.'
'What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace. As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property,' Trump said.