Sources: Trump expected to keep Esper on despite press conference flap

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday appeared to be standing down for now on firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper, said sources familiar with the situation, after threatening to do so the day before.

Trump had been ballistic, said people familiar with the situation, about a press conference Esper held where the defense secretary tried to distance himself from the president’s controversial church photo opportunity on Monday and said he didn’t support sending the military into U.S. cities at this time — a move Trump had said he was considering. The president was so angry he had told aides he was considering dismissing Esper, one of the people said.

But a day later, the view inside the White House was that the president was now unlikely to do so given how close it is to the election, those people said, with one senior administration official saying that removing Esper “is not worth the shakeup five months from an election.”

Trump expressed his anger over the comments to Esper at a Wednesday meeting, the official said. Attorney General William Barr was also in the meeting, which had previously been scheduled as an update on Afghanistan, they said.

Esper reversed his decision to send home some active duty troops deployed to Washington Wednesday after his White House meeting.

Trump’s anger with Esper came as a string of former military officials began speaking out against the president’s handling of the demonstrations across the country. Esper’s predecessor James Mattis publicly slammed Trump’s response to the protests over the death of George Floyd, saying in a Wednesday statement that the president “tries to divide us” and calling his “bizarre photo op” in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church “an abuse of executive authority.”

Esper had not cleared his plans for the press conference with the White House beforehand, one person said.

At the press conference, Esper said that he was aware of the Monday night plan to visit the church — where Trump posed for photos holding a Bible — but had not known what would happen there.

“I did know that following the president’s remarks on Monday evening that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St John’s Episcopal Church,” Esper said. “What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when I arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there.”

He also said he did not support invoking a 213-year-old Insurrection Act, something Trump had been considering, to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to respond to civil unrest in cities across the country.

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said.

White House officials have argued to Trump that Esper’s press conference was a communications failure rather than an instance of breaking rank or seeking to undermine the president, said the administration official.

The feeling at the moment inside the White House, said the senior administration official, continues to be that Trump is moving away from using the Insurrection Act as the unrest that has accompanied some demonstrations appears to be calming in many places.

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