Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has apologized for appearing in a photo with President Donald Trump during his controversial walk from the White House to the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. last week, which at the time had recently been burned down by rioters in the city.
“As many of you saw, the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week. That sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there,” Milley said in a video commencement address to National Defense University released Thursday. Milley warned graduates to be wary of their actions while in uniform and how those actions might be perceived.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Milley said. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from.”
Trump has been criticized for visiting the church following a June 1 White House address, in which he called for state and local officials to bring stronger law enforcement responses to rioting across the country following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn. Trump suggested governors call on their National Guard units and said he would call in active military units if they did not take the measures he prescribed.
During his address, Trump referenced destruction caused by rioting following Floyd’s death, including fires at the nearby church, often referred to as the “church of the presidents.”
Trump had been accused of ordering riot police to forcefully drive away protesters gathered between the White House and the church. In a recent interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr defended the move to disperse protesters and said it was done at his orders as part of a prior security plan for the White House. He said some protesters gathered in the streets outside the White House had also ignored warnings to disperse and had thrown objects at police.
Milley drew distance between his position as the head of the joint chiefs of staff and church incident.
Friends of Milley’s told The New York Times he had agonized for days for being photographed with the President as he walked over to the church. He had reportedly worried that his wearing of military fatigues, while appearing next to Trump, gave the photo op the appearance of military approval for the controversial incident.
Former military officials have also criticized the events leading up to Trump’s appearance before the burned church.
Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, shared a critical statement with The Atlantic, expressing anger at Trump’s handling of the civil unrest following Floyd’s death.
“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.”
Reports have also circulated about a divide between Trump and his current Defense Secretary Mark Esper, over the use of military troops to respond to civil unrest.