chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

'I should not have been there': Top general regrets Trump photo op

"I should not have been there," said Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a video commencement address to National Defense University

Gen. Mark Milley, the nation's top military officer, expressed his regret for walking with President Donald Trump across Lafayette Square for a photo op after authorities forcefully cleared the area of protesters, calling the appearance a "mistake."

"I should not have been there," said Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a video commencement address to National Defense University. "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 remarks were first reported by The New York Times. The June 1 images of Milley walking the streets of D.C. in his combat uniform prompted outrage from current and retired officials, and many accused Pentagon leaders of allowing the military to be used as a political prop by the Trump administration.

Trump had just announced to reporters that if states do not call up the National Guard to handle civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd, he would deploy active-duty troops to those cities.

After the remarks, U.S. Park Police forcefully removed protesters from Lafayette Square, allowing Trump, Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top officials to walk across the area to St. John's Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by fire. Trump posed for cameras holding a bible, then Esper joined other officials in a group photo as Milley stood to the side. Esper later told reporters that he didn't know he was heading for a photo op.

Milley acknowledged to the NDU graduates that his presence at the photo op inappropriately politicized the military.

"That sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society," Milley said. "My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

"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," he said.

Milley also spoke on the murder of George Floyd, saying that he was "outraged" by the "senseless, brutal killing."

"His death amplified the pain, the frustration and the fear that so many of our fellow Americans live with day in and day out," Milley said. "The protests that have ensued not only speak to his killing but also to centuries of injustice toward African Americans."

Milley acknowledged the military's continuing struggle with discrimination in the ranks, noting that while the force has a higher proportion of black service members than society at large, just 7 percent of flag and general officers are black. The Navy and Marine Corps have no black flag officers serving above the two-star level, and the Army has just one black four-star general.

He pointed to the confirmation this week of the first black service chief, Gen. Charles Q. Brown of the Air Force, as an achievement that is "long overdue."

Milley pledged to "take a hard look" at how the military recruits, retains and promotes its members, ensuring that diverse candidates have "equal opportunity" to advance in key career fields.

"We are still struggling in places and we have much work to do. Racism and discrimination, structural preferences, patterns of mistreatment, unspoken and unconscious bias have no place in America and they have no place in our armed forces," Milley said. "We must, we can and we will do better."

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