WASHINGTON — U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the nation’s top military officer, said Thursday he was wrong to accompany U.S. President Donald Trump on a walk through Lafayette Square that ended in a photo op at a church. He said his presence “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
“I should not have been there,” the Joint Chiefs chairman said in remarks to a National Defense University commencement ceremony.
Trump’s June 1 walk through the park to pose with a Bible at a church came after authorities used pepper spray and flash bangs to clear the park and streets of largely peaceful protesters demonstrating in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota in police custody.
Milley’s statement risked the wrath of a president sensitive to anything hinting of criticism of events he has staged. It comes as Pentagon leaders’ relations with the White House are still tense after a disagreement last week over Trump’s threat to use federal troops to quell civil unrest triggered by Floyd’s death.
Milley said his presence and the photographs compromised his commitment to a military divorced from politics.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” 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.”
After protesters were cleared from the Lafayette Square area, Trump led an entourage that included Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held up a Bible for photographers and then returned to the White House.
Esper had not said publicly that he erred by being with Trump at that moment. He told a news conference last week that when they left the White House he thought they were going to inspect damage in the Square and at the church and to mingle with National Guard troops in the area.
Milley’s comments at the National Defense University were his first public statements about the Lafayette Square event on June 1, which the White House has hailed as a “leadership moment” for Trump akin to Winston Churchill inspecting damage from German bombs in London during World War II.
The public uproar following Floyd’s death has created multiple layers of extraordinary tension between Trump and senior Pentagon officials. When Esper told reporters on June 3 that he had opposed Trump bringing active-duty troops on the streets of the nation’s capital to confront protesters and potential looters, Trump castigated him in a face-to-face meeting.
Just this week, Esper and Milley let it be known through their spokesmen that they were open to a “bipartisan discussion” of whether the 10 Army bases named for Confederate Army officers should be renamed as a gesture aimed at disassociating the military from the racist legacy of the Civil War.
On Wednesday, Trump said he would never allow the names to be changed, catching some in the Pentagon by surprise.