WASHINGTON — The extraordinary quarrel between President Donald Trump and the nation’s military leadership intensified Thursday as the Pentagon’s top general publicly apologized for appearing alongside the president in a church photo opportunity minutes after federal authorities forcibly removed peaceful protesters from the area.
The rare admission of regret from Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, capped nearly two weeks of public discomfort with and outright condemnation of Trump’s leadership amid nationwide protests of racial injustice from some of the nation’s most revered military figures.
The perception that Pentagon leaders went along with Trump’s desire to use military force against domestic protesters has caused the biggest civil-military crisis in more than a decade. The disagreement continued this week when Trump tried to shut down a push by some military leaders to address the legacy of racism by removing the names of Confederate leaders from some bases.
This will be the backdrop for Trump’s visit Saturday to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he will deliver a commencement address to 1,105 graduating cadets. Milley is not expected to accompany the president — nor is Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a West Point graduate who also has clashed with the president over his handling of the protests.
On June 1, Milley, who wore combat fatigues, and Esper walked behind Trump and a cadre of presidential aides from the White House and across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the president stood outside the church doors and posed for photographs holding up a Bible. Both Pentagon leaders were roundly criticized for participating in a political photo op.
Milley said in a prerecorded graduation speech to students at the National Defense University that aired Thursday morning that it was important to keep “a keen sense of situational awareness” and that he had failed to do so.
“As many of you saw the results of the photograph of me in Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society,” Milley said. “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
The apology follows a backlash from several retired senior officers, including Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who served as Trump’s first defense secretary.
In a scathing message, Mattis blasted the president as working to divide the country, called him a threat to American values and to the Constitution itself, and took particular exception to the events in Lafayette Square. Mattis was motivated to write in part because he was appalled by the appearance of Milley in an event that critics said made it look as though Trump could use the military as a political club against opponents, several people close to Mattis told The Washington Post.
On Saturday, the spotlight will be trained on the commander in chief when he visits the academy at West Point, a storied New York site overlooking the Hudson River that is tied to revolutionary Americans’ rebellion against colonial rule.
Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the superintendent at West Point, said in an interview Thursday that he is honored by Trump’s visit. Asked whether the current turmoil changes the environment around commencement, Williams said he has instructed cadets to try to tune out the political debates.
“They’re going to lead our nation’s sons and daughters and support our Constitution, defend it and perhaps even die for it,” Williams said. “I’ve told them to focus on the things you can control. These young men and women will carry our values and our ideals all around the world. We’re steadfast on those things, despite what may be happening around them.”
Amid last week’s unrest, Williams, the first black officer to command West Point in its 218-year history, implored all students and faculty to commit themselves to eradicating racism and building cohesion in their community through kindness and compassion.
“All these men and women are going to be leaders with character,” Williams said. “Character is really what we focus on here, and it’s superordinate to the other pillars.”
In a letter posted Thursday on Medium, hundreds of West Point alumni cautioned the class of 2020 to uphold their oath to the Constitution, not to any political party or leader.
“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests. Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events,” they wrote.
The signatories appeared to take aim at Esper, a 1986 West Point graduate who, like Milley, has come under criticism for appearing at Trump’s June 1 photo op in Lafayette Square, and for describing the need to “dominate the battlespace” in response to civil unrest in American cities.
“When fellow graduates fail to respect the checks and balances of government, promote individual power above country, or prize loyalty to individuals over the ideals expressed in the Constitution, it is a travesty to their oath of office,” the alumni letter said.
Esper subsequently came out last week against using active-duty troops to quell unrest, incurring Trump’s wrath in the process.
Trump’s words at West Point will be parsed for signs of how closely they reflect West Point’s leadership values. Will he further politicize the military by delivering a self-indulgent, campaign-style speech, like the one he gave before a Boy Scout Jamboree in 2017? Or will he deliver a more traditionally presidential address that honors the military’s long-protected independence from political affairs?
“It’s going to be an especially fraught moment,” said Kori Schake, a scholar in civil-military relations at the American Enterprise Institute. “If the president chooses to use the West Point commencement as yet another way to try and wrap himself in the uniforms of the American military in order to build political support, it will demonstrate that there really is no limit to what the president is willing to do, no damage he will avoid doing to the respect the American public has for our military.”
Retired Army general Barry McCaffrey, a West Point graduate and a former national security professor there, said the chances are “50-50 he’ll disgrace himself.” But, McCaffrey added, “There will be no incidences. Everyone will be 100 percent respectful to him. No matter what he says, he will get a respectful audience, I am sure.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump’s speech will focus on congratulating the cadets on their accomplishments, although he cautioned that the remarks were still being drafted and subject to change.
“It’s a commencement address and the focus should be on the cadets, not on anything else,” Deere said.
The current strife follows years of intermittent tensions with a commander in chief who has repeatedly flouted norms guiding presidential interactions with the armed forces. On one of his first days in office, Trump used the Pentagon’s revered “Hall of Heroes” to sign a divisive travel ban affecting majority-Muslim nations. Since then he has made troop events a platform for lobbing partisan attacks and, perhaps most troubling to military leaders, openly intervened in sensitive matters of military justice.
The recent events have prompted an unusual outpouring of criticism from respected former military leaders, most of whom have not publicly commented about events of recent years. Among them is retired general Martin Dempsey, a West Point graduate who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who warned last week that using troops against protesters could make it more difficult to maintain America’s all-volunteer force.
“This idea that we have to maintain a relationship of trust between the American people and its military is important because that is who we are,” Dempsey told NPR.
Even before the recent strains, the Army’s decision to proceed with West Point graduation and Trump’s address had generated controversy. In April, the academy announced it would bring its graduating seniors, known as “Firsties,” back from their homes, where they had been studying online because of the coronavirus pandemic, despite the fact that nearby New York City was then the epicenter of the country’s outbreak.
Williams said the graduates have each been tested for the coronavirus and under controlled monitoring for the past two weeks, and that they would be seated outdoors for Saturday’s ceremony six feet apart, in keeping with social distancing guidelines.
“We brought them back in a very disciplined, orderly way,” he said. “They’re doing great. They’re excited about the graduation.”
The military’s involvement in the protest response has also sparked an unusual public conversation about race and racism in the military, which remains among the country’s most diverse institutions but is mostly white and male at the senior levels.
Current and former service members, including Gen. Charles Brown, who this week was confirmed as Air Force chief of staff, making him the first black service chief in U.S. history, have also spoken in candid terms about their experiences.
It’s unclear how those sentiments will square with Trump’s opposition to removing the names of Confederate leaders from military bases. A number of former military leaders, including Gen. David Petraeus, another West Point graduate, who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and served as CIA director, have called for the bases to be renamed.
Trump defended the current base names Thursday on Twitter as part of “a Great American Heritage” and vowed to block any move to rename “these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Still, the Senate Armed Services Committee this week approved a measure that would require the renaming of all military sites with Confederate names within three years. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., a senior member of the GOP-controlled panel, said Thursday that it was the right move regardless of the president’s position.
“If we’re going to have bases throughout the United States, I think it should be with the names of individuals who fought for our country,” Rounds said. “And so I think this is a step in the right direction. This is the right time for it. And I think it sends the right message.”
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The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Julie Tate contributed to this report.