One of the mainstays of Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency is how often it forces nonpolitical officials around him to participate in and defend his provocations. And in the aftermath of Trump’s controversial visit to a church near the White House on Monday, it has happened again.

While the decision to clear protesters from Lafayette Square so Trump could walk to the church was already fraught, two developments since then have underscored the ugly position it put those around him in:

  1. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is emphasizing that he did not know he would be part of a photo op at the church.
  2. The U.S. Park Police on Tuesday denied using “tear gas” to disperse the crowd, but admitted to using a compound that the federal government says is, in fact, tear gas.

The first one might be the more remarkable development. Esper was one of the officials pictured standing with Trump at St. John’s Episcopal Church. But after some members officials cried foul that a military leader would participate in such a political spectacle — a Pentagon official even resigned in a letter published by The Washington Post opinion section decrying Esper’s participation — Esper granted an extraordinary interview to NBC News in which he suggested he had been misled about what was happening.

“I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,” Esper said. He added: “I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.”

He added at a news conference Wednesday morning: “I did know that we were going to the church; I was not aware that a photo op was happening.” (Esper also said he was not aware of the plan to clear the park and criticized the use of a low-flying helicopter over the protesters, saying “it looks unsafe to me.”)

The White House later produced a triumphantly scored video of Trump walking to and from the church.

The fact that Esper decided to grant the interview might be the biggest takeaway here. Regardless of the actual circumstances, it’s evident that he would like to distance himself from the spectacle — a decision that reinforces the dicey nature of what Trump just did.

But Esper would not be the only one drawn into the political tussling on Tuesday. So, too, were law-enforcement officials who obeyed Attorney General William P. Barr’s order to clear Lafayette Square of protesters — who, by the accounts of reporters on the ground, were behaving peacefully.

Media including The Washington Post reported that “tear gas” was used to disperse the crowd, but the U.S. Park Police fought back against that. Acting director Gregory T. Monahan issued a statement Tuesday asserting, “No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park.”

Except that’s not the case, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The same statement from Monahan acknowledges that law enforcement used another irritant known as “pepper balls.” And as The Post’s Abigail Hauslohner reported late Tuesday, the agent used in pepper balls is, in fact, known as tear gas:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Riot control agents (sometimes referred to as “tear gas”) are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”
And, according to the CDC, “several different compounds” fall under this definition, and are employed by security forces, including military and police, in riot control situations.
Among others, they include chloroacetophenone (CN), more commonly referred to as “mace,” or pepper sprays — in other words, the compound that was deployed in Lafayette Square — and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), “one of the most commonly used tear gases in the world,” according to an article in the British Medical Journal.

On that CDC Web page, chloroacetophenone is described as a “tear agent” for which one common name is “tear gas.”

(Note: Even other forms of tear gas are not technically gaseous. Instead, tear gas is a pressurized powder that creates a mist that causes irritation.)

This is quite the semantic game that the U.S. Park Police is playing — claiming a compound that causes tearing and other forms of irritation isn’t actually a tear gas. We don’t yet know the circumstances that led up to the Park Police offering this statement, but it was something Trump was happy to seize upon. In a series of tweets, he and his allies played up what they claimed was false reporting, and Trump even called for the reports to be corrected.

But it’s a scene that has occurred over and over again in the Trump administration, in which he forces nonpolitical government officials to contort themselves and participate in his provocations. There was the time weather officials were forced to vouch for Trump’s obviously false claim — for which Trump would later infamously show a map doctored with a Sharpie — that Alabama was seriously endangered by Hurricane Dorian. There was the time he ordered National Park Service Director Michael T. Reynolds to produce photos that showed the size of his inauguration crowd in a more favorable light. And we’ve seen it over and over again with the coronavirus outbreak, in which health officials are forced to try to put a good face on Trump’s theories and supposed cure-alls.

The most recent example all flows from Trump’s controversial decision to clear peaceful protesters from near the White House so that he could put on a show of strength. And these comments demonstrate how much government officials recognize how problematic the entire scene was.