Pentagon’s top commander apologises for joining Trump’s Bible photo-op

Chairman of joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley says he regrets link with ‘domestic politics’

Top US military officer General Mark Milley says it was a mistake to join Donald Trump in a photo op outside a church last week during anti-racism protests in Washington. Video: Reuters

The fall-out from the Trump administration's use of law enforcement to disperse protesters near the White House last week has intensified, as the nation's top military commander apologised for accompanying Mr Trump to St John's Church where he posed for a photo.

In a highly unusual intervention, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mark Milley, said he regretted appearing with Mr Trump in Lafayette Square as the president made his way to the church where he held up a Bible, a move widely denounced by critics.

US president Donald Trump, with chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley (far right), walking from the White House to visit St John’s Church on June 1st. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

“As many of you saw the results of the photograph of me in Lafayette Square last week – that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society,” he said in an online address to students graduating from the National Defence Academy.

“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 continued: “As a commissioned, uniformed officer it was a mistake that I have learned from . . . 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 essence of our Republic.”

The mea culpa from the Pentagon's top military commander is the latest pushback by senior members of the military over the White House's handling of public protests last week over the death of African-American man George Floyd. Defence secretary Mark Esper has also said he regretted appearing in the picture.

Seattle threat

But despite the growing unease in military ranks about Mr Trump’s threat to deploy the army on US streets, the president has not backed down. In recent days he has turned his sights to Seattle, suggesting he could intervene in the city, which has seen widespread demonstrations by activists.

“Take back your city NOW,” Mr Trump wrote in a tweet addressed to Seattle’s mayor and the governor of Washington State. “If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game.” He later added: “Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle, run by Radical Left Democrats, of course. LAW & ORDER!”

In a tweet sent as he flew to Dallas on Air Force One on Thursday, he claimed that "anarchists just took over Seattle".

Mr Trump also weighed in to the deepening cultural row over the renaming of Confederate sites and monuments amid widespread public anger over perceived racism among police in the US.

The president said he opposed renaming several military bases that were named after Confederate leaders in the civil war, including Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Benning in Georgia.

"The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars," he tweeted. "Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!"

The announcement puts him at odds with the Pentagon, which was said to be considering renaming some of those sites, partly as a gesture of inclusiveness to many of the men and women of colour in the US military.

Also on Thursday, House speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated her view that Confederate statues in the US Capitol should be taken down. "The American people know these names have to go," she said, adding that it's a "perfect time for us to move . . . statues" of Confederate figures like Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis from the Capitol.

Nascar – the national association for stock-car racing – announced a ban on Confederate flags at its events this week, amid a renewed focus on the meaning of a symbol that was used on the pro-slavery side in the civil war.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent