Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that it was a “mistake” for him to participate in the photo-op President Donald Trump staged outside a church near the White House amid anti-racism protests.
“I should not have been there,” Milley said in remarks to a National Defense University commencement ceremony. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
After federal police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of peaceful protesters on June 1, Milley walked with Trump and other high-ranking U.S. officials across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Trump held a Bible ― at times, upside-down ― as he posed for photos in front of the church. Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany can also been seen in some photos.
The aggressive crowd-dispersal tactics and Trump’s subsequent photo-op drew intense backlash from activists, Democratic lawmakers, religious leaders and former military officials.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis condemned Trump for dividing the country in a searing statement published in The Atlantic last week.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis wrote. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
The Pentagon has tried to distance itself from the incident. A spokesperson for the Defense Department said last week that Esper and Milley were “not aware” that law enforcement had been ordered to clear the protesters. The two military officials believed they were walking out of the White House with Trump to “address the protests,” the spokesperson 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,” Milley said Thursday of his participation in the photo-op. “We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation.”
He continued: “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 day.”
The White House did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who often acts as one of Trump’s loudest cheerleaders in Congress, said Thursday that he supports Milley’s comments about the church visit.
“General Milley is a tremendous military leader who understands the long tradition of maintaining an apolitical, nonpartisan military,” Graham tweeted.
Milley’s remarks will likely inflame tensions between the White House and the Defense Department. Trump reportedly wanted to fire Esper after he spoke out against the president’s threats to deploy active-duty troops to quell civil unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
Earlier this week, spokespeople for Esper and Milley said the Pentagon would be open to “bipartisan discussion” of whether to rename 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederate army officers who fought during the Civil War to preserve the enslavement of Black people.
Trump tweeted Wednesday that his administration “will not even consider” renaming the installations.