Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley said Thursday that he “should not have been” with President Trump when he visited historic St. John’s Episcopal Church last week in a move that sparked political controversy.
Speaking in a prerecorded commencement address at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., Milley admitted that “My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
“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 stated. “We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation. And we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our Republic. And this is not easy. It takes time and work and effort. But it may be the most important thing each and every one of us does every single day.”
Trump’s visit to the church, which had been set on fire by rioters the previous night, drew criticism because it came moments after federal police cleared protestors from Lafayette Square ahead of a 7 p.m. curfew imposed by D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser. While standing in front of the church, Trump brandished a Bible for the cameras and said he would keep the country safe.
Bowser criticized the actions of the White House, tweeting that “A full 25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House.”
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis also slammed the move, saying in a rare public statement that “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.”
During a speech before his visit to the church, the president warned that he could invoke the Insurrection Act, a 19th century law that allows him to deploy the military domestically, if governors do not deploy “the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” But according to the New York Times, Milley urged the president not to invoke the power, saying the problem could be managed by the states. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has also said he opposes use of the Insurrection Act, reportedly drawing the ire of the White House.