The nation's highest-ranking military officer apologized Thursday for accompanying President Donald Trump to a photo opportunity at a Washington church after authorities violently moved protesters from an area outside the White House.
"I should not have been there," Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a 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."
Following a June 1 Rose Garden speech, Trump posed with a Bible outside St. John's Episcopal Church after protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square across from the Executive Mansion.
The protests were triggered by the death last month of George Floyd at the hands of police. The unarmed black man died after a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. The officer has been charged with second-degree murder.
Before the photo op, Trump stopped short of invoking the Insurrection Act but threatened to deploy active-duty U.S. military if states failed to quell demonstrations. He then walked out to St. John's with Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other members of the Cabinet, including Attorney General William Barr.
Trump stood in front of the historic St. John's Church holding a Bible and posing for photographs. He later motioned to members of his Cabinet to stand alongside him for more pictures.
"As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched, and I am not immune. 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," Milley said.
"We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation," the four-star general said. "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."
Milley praised the mostly peaceful protests saying "we should all be proud" because the "peaceful protests means American freedom is working."
A senior Defense Department official last week told reporters that Esper and Milley did not plan to participate in Trump's photo-op in front of St. John's Church, whose basement had been set on fire by protesters the night before.
"The secretary and the chairman were both actually heading to the Washington Field Office of the FBI to be co-located with the director of the FBI and the Attorney General to observe and provide leadership for response efforts last evening," the official said.
"They were not aware that the Park Police and law enforcement had made a decision to clear the square. And once they began that walk off the White House grounds with the president, their understanding was that they were going out of the White House to go into Lafayette Park to review the efforts to address the protests," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The latest revelation comes as former national security leaders criticized Esper and Milley's handling of the civil unrest.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned from the Trump administration in December 2018, wrote in a statement last week that he "watched this week's unfolding events, angry and appalled."
"Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part."
Mattis, who was Trump's first Defense secretary, also took issue with the June 1 incident in which protestors were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square.
"The words 'Equal Justice Under Law' are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind," Mattis wrote.
"We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution."