Mark Milley, the country’s top military official, said Thursday he made a mistake when he accompanied President Trump on foot from the White House to nearby Lafayette Square, which ended with the president posing with the bible in his hand in front of a church.
The general said his presence “gave the impression that the army was involved in the internal affairs of the country.” “I shouldn’t have been there,” the Chief of Staff said in comments to the graduation ceremony of the students of the National Defense University.
The president’s June 1 appearance in the park near the White House and the photo with the bible in hand came shortly after authorities had used chili pepper spray and noisy bombs to disperse protesters, who were mostly demonstrating peacefully after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota during the arrest. General Milley said his presence and photographs in the area compromised his commitment to keeping the military’s actions separate from politics. “My presence at that moment in that environment gave the impression that the army was interfering in the internal affairs,” the general said. “As an active uniform officer, it was a mistake I learned from, and I sincerely hope we all learn from it.” His statement is likely to revolt against the president, who reacts strongly to any criticism of his activities.
The comments also come at a time when Pentagon executives’ relationship with the White House continues to be strained following a dispute last week over President Trump’s threat to use federal troops to stop the riots that followed George Floyd’s death.
After the protesters dispersed from Lafayette Square, the president led a group of officials, including General Milley and Pentagon Secretary Mark Esper, to the St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he picked up the Bible he was holding and posed for reporters, and then returned to the White House.
Secretary Esper did not say whether he had made a mistake in accompanying the president at the time. He told a news conference that when they left the White House he thought they were going to see the damage in the square and in the church and to greet the National Guard troops. Authorities’ reaction to the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death has created tensions between the president and senior Pentagon officials.
When Secretary Esper told reporters on June 3 that he had opposed President Trump’s idea of bringing active troops to the streets of the capital to repel protesters and stop people committing acts of vandalism and looting, the president then sharply criticized him. Esper and Milley signaled through their spokesmen that they were open to “bipartisan discussions” over the idea of renaming 10 military bases bearing the names of Confederate soldiers.
The president reacted on Wednesday that he would never allow the names of the bases to be changed. In his address to the graduates of the National Defense University, General Milley said: “We must uphold the principle of an apolitical army that is deeply rooted in our republic. It takes work and effort, but it can be the most important thing any of us can do. ” General Milley also expressed outrage at the assassination of George Floyd and called on the military to view the death as a reflection of the injustices done to African-Americans over the centuries.
“We are seeing the long shadow of our first sin (in the colony) Jamesstown founded 401 years ago,” he said, referring to the behavior of the first slaves on New Earth. General Milley said the military has made significant strides forward in the racial problem. He noted that the Armed Forces have only one four-star African-American general, but that the Air Force will now be headed for the first time by an African-American general.