Top Military Officer Apologizes for Joining Trump Walk to Church

Gen. Mark Milley, right, joins President Donald Trump and administration officials on a walk to St. John’s Church on June 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Top military general Mark Milley said Thursday he should not have joined President Donald Trump in walking to St. John’s Church for a Bible photo op, for which authorities forcefully cleared peaceful protesters to make way for administration officials.

“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Milley said in a National Defense University commencement ceremony webcast, referring to a photo of him in his combat uniform alongside Trump and his presidential entourage. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

In the last few weeks, some military officers have disagreed with Trump’s decision to use federal troops to control protests triggered by George Floyd’s death in police custody.

In his commencement speech Thursday, Milley emphasized the military should be above politics.  

“We must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. “It takes time and work and effort, but it may be the most important thing each and every of us does every single day.”

Randy Pestana, an adjunct professor at Florida International University’s public policy institute, said in an interview Thursday that he thought military officers appearing alongside Trump in the photo “was a major step back for civil-military relations in the United States.”

“At a minimum, General Milley and [Defense] Secretary [Mark] Esper lose a lot of credibility in the eyes of the American people and many veterans around the country,” he said. “Military personnel are taught to be apolitical as you have to serve both Democratic and Republican commander-in-chiefs regardless of personal politics. This photo opportunity placed both in negative lights that can reflect poorly on the rank and file of the armed forces.”

The military has always been in the barracks and not in front of the general population, Pestana explained, which gives these officials a level of prestige with the American public.  

“Having them in the streets and being asked by their commander-in-chief to ‘crack-down’ on protesters, the large majority of them peaceful, sends a bad message and reduces that level of prestige,” he continued. “Hard to say what impact this will have long term, especially if protests continue to intensify.”

Pestana said that Milley was correct to emphasize that military officials should remain apolitical.

“The president has made a political calculation that showing strength by having the military in the streets will help his re-election odds. It also attempts to paint him as ‘the military’s president.’ Whether this does help him in the election, we will find out in November,” he said.

Esper, who claimed last week in an interview with NBC that he was unaware of his destination when he joined the president on the short walk across Lafayette Square, said in a letter to Congress on Wednesday, signed by both Milley and Esper, that neither official intended to pose with Trump.

“We participated in the walk with the aim of observing damage in Lafayette Square and at St. Johns Church, and meeting with and thanking the National Guard members who were on duty,” they said.

The letter, which was obtained by the Washington Post, came after a June 3 request to schedule a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee about the Defense Department’s role and authority in civilian law enforcement. 

Esper and Milley responded after the chair of the committee, Congressman Adam Smith, D-Wash., voiced his “profound frustration” Wednesday that the officials had not yet responded to his request to testify before the committee.

The House Armed Services Committee had asked Esper and Milley to answer questions about the use of military force in responding to peaceful civil rights protests in Washington and plans to deploy active duty troops around the country in the event Trump tried to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to trigger U.S. military involvement in states. 

In their response, Esper and Milley said that National Guard troops served in a supporting role in protecting Washington amid protests and that they were preparing active-duty forces to deploy into the nation’s capital only as a precaution, but that the forces “are not currently present and were not ever in the District for purposes of civilian law enforcement.”

Trump does have the power to invoke the Insurrection Act, they confirmed.

“In the event that a president makes such a decision, he may do so without approval from the state government in which the forces are to be used,” they said.

Trump has faced widespread backlash over his photo op at St. John’s Church last week, including from former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who issued a scathing rebuke of the use of military force to repel protesters.

“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.”

Mattis also said we are “witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us,” he wrote.

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