WASHINGTON — The country’s top military official apologized Thursday for taking part in President Donald Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op after the authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters.
“I should not have been there,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a prerecorded 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.”
Milley’s first public remarks since Trump’s photo op, in which federal authorities attacked peaceful protesters so that the president could hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Church, are certain to anger the White House. Trump has spent the days since the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis taking increasingly tougher stances against the growing movement for change across the country.
The back-and-forth between Trump and the Pentagon in recent days is evidence of the deepest civil-military divide since the Vietnam War — except this time, military leaders, after halting steps in the beginning, are positioning themselves firmly with those calling for change.
Associates of Milley’s said he considered resigning, but he decided not to.
On Wednesday, the president picked another fight with the military, slapping down the Pentagon for considering renaming Army bases named after Confederate officers who fought against the Union in the Civil War. The Marine Corps has banned display of the Confederate battle flag, and leaders of both the Army and the Navy have in recent days expressed a willingness to move forward with renaming installations.
At the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee, with bipartisan support, voted to require the Pentagon to strip military bases of Confederate names, setting up a possible election-year clash with the president.
Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square, current and former military leaders said, has started a critical moment of reckoning in the military. Milley addressed the issue head-on.
“As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from,” Milley said. He said he had been angry about “the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd” and repeated his opposition to the president’s suggestions that federal troops be deployed nationwide to quell protests.
Milley’s friends said that for the past 10 days, he had agonized about appearing — in the combat fatigues he wears every day to work — behind Trump during the walk, an act that critics said gave a stamp of military approval to the hard-line tactics used to clear the protesters.
During his speech Thursday, Milley, after expressing his disgust over the killing of Floyd, spoke at length about the issue of race, both in the military and in civilian society.
“The protests that have ensued not only speak to his killing, but also to the centuries of injustice toward African Americans,” he said. “What we are seeing is the long shadow of our original sin in Jamestown 401 years ago, liberated by the Civil War, but not equal in the eyes of the law until 100 years later in 1965.”
He called on the military to address issues of systemic racism in the armed forces, where 43% of the enlisted troops are people of color but only a tiny handful are in the ranks of senior leadership.
“The Navy and Marine Corps have no African Americans serving above the two-star level, and the Army has just one African American four-star,” he said, referring to officers who are generals and admirals. “We all need to do better.”
After protesters were cleared from areas opposite the White House on June 1, Milley believed he was accompanying Trump and his entourage to review National Guard troops and other law enforcement personnel outside Lafayette Square, Defense Department officials said.
In the days after the photo op, Milley told Trump that he was angered by what had happened. The two had already exchanged sharp words last Monday, when Milley engaged the president in a heated discussion in the Oval Office over whether to send active-duty troops into the streets, according to people in the room.
Milley argued that the scattered fires and looting in some places were dwarfed by the peaceful protests and should be handled by the states, which command local law enforcement.
Trump acquiesced, but he has continued to hold out the threat of sending active-duty troops.
Last week, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper called a news conference to announce that he, too, opposed invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops across the country to quell protests, a line that a number of U.S. military officials said they would not cross.
Although Esper’s comments at the Pentagon made clear that a rise in violence in cities nationwide could prompt a change in his stance, his statement was clear. Saying that the Insurrection Act should be invoked only in the “most urgent and dire of situations,” he added that “we are not in one of those situations now.”
The president, aides say, has been furious with both Esper and Milley since then. Defense Department officials say they are unsure how long either will last in their respective jobs, but they also note that Trump can ill afford to go into open warfare with the Pentagon so close to an election. And the uproar comes days before the president is to give the commencement address at West Point.
Since last Monday, Milley has spoken with lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, both Democrats. He has also spoken with many of his predecessors, as well as with Republican congressional leaders, according to people with knowledge of the conversations. In most of the exchanges, Milley said he deeply regretted the park episode.
The Lafayette Square events brought extraordinary public criticism from a number of high-profile former military officials, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and Jim Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary before he resigned in December 2018.
In fact, the episode prompted Mattis, who had avoided publicly criticizing Trump, to write a statement denouncing his former boss.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” wrote Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general. “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.”
A combat veteran who peppers his speech with references to the history of warfare, Milley has usually gotten along with Trump, mixing banter and bluntness when he speaks with his boss, officials say. The general went against the wishes of his own father — who fought at Iwo Jima as a Marine — when he joined the Army.
In the tumultuous hours and days since the walk across Lafayette Square, Milley has taken pains to mitigate the damage. Two days afterward, he released a letter that forcefully reminded the troops that their military was supposed to protect the right to freedom of speech. He added a handwritten codicil to his letter, some of it straying outside the margins: “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America — we will stay true to that oath and the American people.”