President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John’s Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images
The nation’s highest-ranking military officer apologized Thursday for accompanying President Donald Trump to a photo opportunity at a Washington, D.C., church after authorities violently moved protesters from an area outside the White House.
“I should not have been there,” U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a video commencement address to National Defense University.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” he added.
Trump had posed with a bible outside the church on June 1 after Lafayette Square was cleared by authorities of people demonstrating over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died when a white Minneapolis cop knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to scatter protesters.
“As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from,” Milley said.
Milley, who wore combat fatigues during the controversial appearance with Trump on the streets of the nation’s capital, also said he was angry about “the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd.”
Milley reiterated in his address that he does not agree with Trump’s call to deploy federal military troops to deal with people protesting the death of Floyd and similar incidents involving cops and black people.
“As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched, and I am not immune. As many of you saw, the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society,” Milley said.
“As a commissioned, uniformed officer, it was a mistake, that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
“We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation,” the general said. “And we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our Republic. And this is not easy. It takes time and work and effort. But it may be the most important thing each and every one of us does every single day.”
A senior Defense Department official last week told reporters that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Milley did not plan to participate in Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Church, which had been set on fire by protesters the night before.
“The secretary and the chairman were both actually heading to the Washington Field Office of the FBI to be co-located with the director of the FBI and the Attorney General to observe and provide leadership for response efforts last evening,” the official said.
“They were not aware that the Park Police and law enforcement had made a decision to clear the square. And once they began that walk off the White House grounds with the president, their understanding was that they were going out of the White House to go into Lafayette Park to review the efforts to address the protests,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Before the photo-op, Trump spoke at the White House and threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military if states failed to quell demonstrations.
He then walked out to St. John’s with Milley, Esper and members of his Cabinet, including Attorney General William Barr.
While standing outside the church, Trump motioned to members of his Cabinet to stand alongside him for more pictures.
Esper, who previously said that he would preserve the U.S. military’s apolitical nature, posed with the president for photos.
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