General Mark A. Milley, the top uniformed officer in the US, apologized on Thursday for accompanying President Donald Trump on his now-infamous walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op on June 1 — a stunt that saw police beat and teargas peaceful protesters in order to clear the park.
"As many of you saw, the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week," said Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, in a prerecorded commencement speech to graduates from the National Defense University. "That sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society."
“I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics," he added. "As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it."
The apology comes amid a national debate over the police and military while protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis continue.
Trump has repeatedly demanded that governors call in the National Guard to crack down on protesters, and threatened to send in military forces if they do not. In Washington, DC, which does not have the sovereignty that statehood affords, the president has been able to order thousands of National Guard troops to quash the protests.
On June 1, following weeks of criticizing demonstrators and at one point even warning they could be shot, Trump delivered a speech in the Rose Garden, painting himself as a hero of peaceful protesters. At the same time, police outside the White House were beating demonstrators and journalists, and firing chemical agents at them minutes before the city's curfew went into effect.
After the air cleared, Trump strolled across Lafayette Square with his aides, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and Milley, who appeared in full combat uniform, in tow. He then posed for photos in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, a Bible in his hand.
Widespread condemnation from the public and local DC officials followed almost immediately.
The parish leadership also criticized the stunt, saying they were "shocked at the surprise visit from the President this evening and even more appalled at the violent clearing of Lafayette Square to make the visit possible."
Milley and Esper were also criticized for taking part in it. Historian and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post that Milley's presence "gave tangible meaning to the president’s threat to deploy the U.S. military to put down 'domestic terror' in the United States."
The two men also said they did not intend to be photographed with Trump outside the church, but participated in the walk "with the aim of observing damage in Lafayette Square and at St. John's Church, and meeting with and thanking the National Guard members who were on duty."
In his commencement speech Thursday, Milley said he was "outraged by the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd."
"The protests that have ensued not only speak to his killing, but also to the centuries of injustice toward African Americans," he added.