General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that he regretted participating in a photo opportunity with President Trump at a historic church near the White House that was damaged during protests last week. Mr. Trump walked from the White House across Lafayette Square after law enforcement officers forcefully cleared peaceful protesters from the area using rubber bullets and pepper spray.
"I should not have been there," Milley said in a prerecorded message to graduates of the National Defense University. "My presence in that moment and in that environment 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 you all can learn from," Milley continued. He appeared in photos in combat fatigues with Mr. Trump as the president walked to St. John's Church to hold the Bible for photographs.
The chairman urged graduates to remain apolitical during their military service.
"We must hold dear the principles of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic," Milley said.
The general's comments come amid rising tensions between the Pentagon and Mr. Trump. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump said he would not consider renaming Army installations named after Confederate leaders, after the Pentagon said it would be open to discussing the issue.
The military's role in response to the protests against police brutality has come under fire by former military leaders, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who sharply criticized the Trump administration in a stunning statement last week. Mattis denounced the the "abuse of executive authority" of forcing protesters from Lafayette Square, making the case that the country is witnessing the consequences of a president who has sought to "divide" the nation for three years.
"We must reject any thinking of our cities as a 'battlespace' that our uniformed military is called upon to 'dominate.' At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors," Mattis wrote. "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."
Mr. Trump urged state and local leaders to "dominate" the streets in response to earlier protests, and threatened to send military troops to jurisdictions unable to quell the demonstrations. Milley said in his speech that he opposed sending troops to American cities, a position shared with Defense Secretary Mark Esper.