Vice President Mike Pence said he has “great respect” for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who spoke out against his involvement in a controversial walk with President Donald Trump to pose for photos at St. John’s Church.
“I have great respect for General Milley. He’s leading our Joint Chiefs of Staff with great distinction. I respect his ability to speak for himself about his presence there,” Pence said.
In an interview with CBS News Radio in Pittsburgh on Friday, Pence would not say whether he agreed with Milley that it was a “mistake” to join in when Trump and a group of White House aides walked through Lafayette Square near the White House to visit the historic church, where a basement fire was set during a protest late last month.
“I’ll leave General Milley to his own judgment in that regard,” Pence said.
Milley made waves this week when he said he regretted joining Trump at the church after police and National Guard officers used force to clear largely peaceful George Floyd protesters from Lafayette Square, which drew instant backlash from those who saw it as clearing a path for Trump to have a “photo op” with a Bible.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Milley said in remarks for a National Defense University commencement ceremony. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
Milley’s presence in the photos, while wearing his camouflage combat uniform, drew outrage from some retired military officials.
“I should not have been there,” he said.
Pence was absent from the walk to St. John’s Church that day, which he said was due to “an abundance of caution” because of the protests.
“I was actually encouraged to stay at the White House out of an abundance of caution. It was obviously a volatile environment at moments. So I was encouraged to remain,” Pence said. “But I would have been happy to walk shoulder to shoulder across Lafayette Park with President Trump.”
The protests outside the White House were part of the recent massive demonstrations across the country against police brutality and racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose neck was pinned to the ground for nearly nine minutes by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe on Memorial Day.
Lawmakers are looking at legislation to reform policing to reduce instances of brutality, with Democrats introducing a Justice in Policing Act and Republicans working on their own plan. Trump has said he’s working on an executive order to encourage police departments to follow current professional standards for use of force.
Pence declined to say if he believes there is systemic racism in the country, but said racism does exist: “I acknowledge that there is racism in America, just as there is in every nation on Earth.”
“We’ve obviously had a great challenging history for African Americans over the last 400 years,” Pence said. “But I truly believe that every American can be proud of the progress that we have made over the life of this nation.”
Asked if the choke hold restraining method that applies pressure on the front of the neck and throat to cut off air should be banned for police officers, Pence said it should be “considered.” In a Fox News interview released earlier on Friday, Trump signaled he could be open to banning choke holds. The Democrats’ legislation would put an end to the practice.
Pence was also asked about a photo he tweeted and later deleted that showed him with Trump campaign staffers not adhering to guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He said he is “very confident that all the actions there were appropriate.”
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