Trump walks with Esper, Milley and others to visit St. John's Church June 1, 2020. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

President Trump declined on Friday to say he retains full confidence in Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and said Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley should have been "proud" to join him on the now-infamous walk across Lafayette Square.

Driving the news: "I personally think they should have done it differently," Trump told Axios in an interview Friday in the Oval Office. "I think they should be proud to walk alongside of their president for purposes of safety."

Why it matters: Despite initial indications that he accepted their pushback against him, Trump remains irked by his top military leaders' public statements. Esper told colleagues he felt deeply uncomfortable being drawn into the photo op at St. John's church, and Milley publicly apologized for his participation in the episode.

The big picture: Police used smoke canisters, pepper balls and rubber pellets to clear out the protesters, and Trump then walked from the White House to St. John's with senior White House aides and officials, including Milley and Esper.

  • Trump then held up a Bible in front of the church. Milley and Esper immediately fielded intense criticism for participating in the photo-op.
  • Trump's first defense secretary, James Mattis, was so appalled by the episode that he publicly denounced Trump as threat to the Constitution.
  • "I should not have been there," Milley later said, in pre-recorded remarks to a National Defense University audience. "My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

In our interview Friday, Trump initially said of Esper and Milley, "I don't think they broke with me" and "I think they should do what they want to do."

  • But the president soon pivoted to say, "I would have handled it differently."
  • He said he understood that their responses appeared to be prompted by their desire to adhere to "exact, strict" regulations, but that "if I were in their position I would have done it somewhat differently."
  • "Under regulation, perhaps they're right," Trump said, but claimed, "I know the regulation even better than they do."
  • "But they also would have been right to say, 'We're proud to walk alongside our president and we want our president to be safe.'"

Between the lines: Asked if he could say with his hand on his heart that he retains full confidence in Esper, who is Trump's fourth defense secretary in three years, the president declined to express support. "Well, I don't have to go hand on heart. But...if and when I don't, you're going to hear that. You'll be hearing about it."

  • Asked whether he considered firing Esper — as Axios and others reported — Trump hesitated and chose not to directly deny it. "I really wasn't focused on it," he replied, "because I have many things that I do focus on very much."

What's next: Read more from our interview this weekend in our Axios AM and Sneak Peek newsletters.

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