America’s top military officer said Thursday that he made a mistake when he accompanied President Donald Trump on a walk from the White House to a nearby church that was damaged by rioters the night before.
“I should not have been there,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said while speaking to graduates at the National Defense University in Washington.
“As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched. And I am not immune,” he said.
Milley, dressed in full uniform, walked with Trump, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and other officials to St. John’s Church through Lafayette Square on June 1. A photograph of him with Trump “sparked a national debate,” the chairman continued.
Milley said his being part of the group “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,” he added.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Milley’s statement came hours after Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, said in a television appearance that he was “so damn proud” of former military officers going public with criticism of Trump.
“I promise you, I’m absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House … with great dispatch,” he said, when asked what would happen if he won and Trump refuses to leave office, an idea White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called a conspiracy theory during an appearance on Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom.”
The events surrounding the walk to St. John’s drew heavy media attention. Reporters claimed Trump directed authorities to clear the square of protesters so he could walk to the church and that officers used tear gas.
Attorney General William Barr, who was with Trump and Milley on the walk, said that Park Police initially decided to expand the security perimeter by one block late the previous day, a move that was approved by Barr and other officials earlier on June 1.
Barr said he personally witnessed protesters hurling projectiles like rocks at himself and law enforcement officers before the perimeter was expanded. Authorities, including Esper, have denied using tear gas.
“We were reacting to three days of extremely violent demonstrations right across from the White House. A lot of injuries to police officers, arson,” Barr said this week. Esper pushed back on what he described as inaccurate reporting on the matter, saying he was aware that he and others were joining Trump on a trip to the church.
Several hours after officers pushed protesters back, Trump and the group moved through the now-empty square. They observed damage inflicted by rioters at the church, where presidents have traditionally attended, and spoke to reporters as pictures were taken. At one point, the president held a Bible in his hand.
Critics of the president described what happened as a “photo op.”
Barr told Fox News it was appropriate for a president to walk to the church.
“The president of the United States should be able to walk one block from the White House to the church of the presidents. He should be able to do that,” Barr said. “This canard that this exercise was done to make that possible was totally false. I don’t see anything wrong with the president walking over to the church.”
Esper, meanwhile, told reporters recently when asked if he regretted walking with Trump: “I do everything I can to stay apolitical and stay out of situations that may appear political. Sometimes I’m successful in doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful.” McEnany said officials have “no regrets” about what happened.