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Pence says he was "encouraged" to stay at White House "out of an abundance of caution," not join Trump at church

Vice President Mike Pence didn't join President Trump for the walk to St. John's Church "out of an abundance of caution," he told CBS News Radio in an interview Friday. 

"I was at the White House. And I was actually encouraged to stay at the White House out of an abundance of caution. It was obviously a — a volatile environment at moments, and so I was encouraged to remain. But I would have been happy to walk shoulder to shoulder across Lafayette Park with President Trump," Pence told CBS News Radio in an interview that took place in Pittsburgh. 

Some observers noticed the vice president's absence, particularly given the importance of faith to him. Presidents and vice presidents are sometimes discouraged from being at the same place at the same time.

The president's decision to walk across the street to the church and hold up a Bible for a photo op after Lafayette Park had just been cleared of protesters soon became controversial. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley on Thursday said his presence in the photo op was a "mistake" that "created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Milley's statement took the White House by surprise, as multiple White House sources have told CBS News. But Pence refused to weigh in on Milley's admission of a "mistake."

"I have great respect for General Milley. He's leading our Joint Chiefs of Staff with great distinction. I respect his ability to speak for himself about his presence there," Pence told CBS News Radio. 

Along with other top White House officials, Pence declined to say there is systemic racism in the country, while saying racism does exist. Pence met with African-American leaders at a church in Pittsburgh Friday, including one pastor, Ross Owens, who said he's tired of people who live in a bubble and don't acknowledge systemic racism. Portnoy asked Pence if he agrees there is systemic racism in the United States. 

"Well, I acknowledge that there is racism in America, just as there is in every nation on earth," Pence said. "And we've obviously had a great challenging history for African-Americans over the last 400 years. But I truly believe that every American can be proud of the progress we have made over the life of this nation."

On another topic, the vice president was asked about a pictured tweeted then deleted from his account showing him meeting with Trump-Pence campaign staff, gathered closely together and without masks. The CDC recommends mask-wearing in public, particularly in any type of gathering. 

"I'm very confident that all the actions there were appropriate, and that as that office continues to operate they'll operate in a safe and responsible way — just like businesses all across America are doing," he said. 

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