This is something else. He’s entirely right that he shouldn’t have been there, but it’s not entirely right for him to be second-guessing the commander-in-chief in public this way.
General Mark Milley apologizes for taking part in Trump’s Bible photo op outside the White House: “I should not have been there…It was a mistake.” pic.twitter.com/h8PIunEOCP
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) June 11, 2020
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” he says, correctly. It was the sight of Milley, in battle dress no less, strolling along behind Trump after the Park Police cleared Lafayette Square of protesters that reportedly made James Mattis flip his lid and issue his statement denouncing Trump. He and Milley already had an uneasy relationship dating to Mattis’s time as SecDef but watching Milley lend military muscle to Trump’s threat to send regular troops into American cities to confront looters was the last straw. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens,” wrote Mattis of the presence of the National Guard in the park, “much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Milley’s gotten something of a bad rap for his role in that pageant, though. A defense official told NBC that he and Mark Esper were en route to the FBI’s D.C. field office on that Monday afternoon to monitor protests with Bill Barr and Chris Wray when they were told to head to the White House to brief Trump. After the briefing, Trump walked out to the Rose Garden to rhetorically rattle his saber at rioters and then proceeded into Lafayette Square and ultimately St. John’s church. According to NBC’s source, Esper and Milley thought “they were going into Lafayette Park to review the efforts of the troops.” Little did they know Trump wanted them in tow as he symbolically reclaimed territory lost to protesters and then waved the Bible around.
It’s possible that that’s a lie, that Esper and Milley knew what they were in for and went along, concocting a self-serving story later about how they had been shanghaied by Trump into the photo op. But it’s also possible that it’s true. There were many reports last week of a shouting match between Trump and Milley in the days before the photo op in which Milley refused to send regular troops against American citizens. (“I’m not doing that,” he allegedly said. “That’s for law enforcement.”) If Milley was willing to say no to the boss privately about using the Insurrection Act, it’d be strange for him to want to lend military symbolism to Trump’s public threat to use the Insurrection Act just days later.
The Times says Milley has been stewing about his role in the stunt since it happened, amid loads of criticism from respected retired officers like Mattis, Mike Mullen, and James Stavridis:
General Milley’s friends said that for the past 10 days, he has been agonized about appearing — in the combat fatigues he wears every day to work — behind Mr. Trump during the walk across Lafayette Square, an act that critics said gave a stamp of military approval to the hard-line tactics used to clear the protesters.
The general believed that he was accompanying Mr. Trump and his entourage to review National Guard troops and other law enforcement personnel outside Lafayette Square, Defense Department officials said.
In the days after the photo op, General Milley told Mr. Trump that he was angered by what had happened.
“Maybe the image of Milley in battle fatigues outside the White House was just a passing moment, or maybe it will turn out to be the first in a series of pictures in some future history text about the undermining of American democracy,” said Robert Kagan last week. That’s not the legacy Milley wants. Hence today’s video.
Of course, not everyone is willing to accept his apology:
What is he talking about it?
There wasn’t a “perception” that the military was involved in domestic politics. The military was knee deep.
National Guard troops were everywhere. Recon planes were flying overhead. Milley was marching through the streets overseeing it all. https://t.co/vaJguAxjyK
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) June 11, 2020
The arresting thing about the clip is that it’s sure to irritate Trump. Here’s the country’s top officer insisting that his role in the commander-in-chief’s photo op was regrettable. I don’t think there’s any violation of rules or regulations in that (although I invite vets to correct me) but it’s not a great look, especially when in uniform. The UCMJ forbids soldiers from uttering “contemptuous” words about the president but nothing Milley says here quite rises to the level of “contempt.” The Code also forbids insubordination, of course, but Milley didn’t defy any orders from Trump as far as we know. He did in fact make the walk across Lafayette Square with him. (I doubt Trump actually gave him a formal order to accompany him in the first place.) In fact, Milley never uses Trump’s name or blames him for what happened in the square; he’s apologizing for a decision he made himself to participate in it.
But in context he’s condemning the whole point of the photo op, which was to show that Trump was willing to use force to get rough with protesters who weren’t breaking any laws. The National Guard helped clear the square, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff symbolically helped reclaim it. That’s what Trump wanted, that’s what Milley’s now condemning. It’s a deliberate repudiation of, and embarrassment to, the president. Why didn’t Milley resign? Or is he hoping Trump will fire him?
Update: Gonna give Tom Cotton an “A” for effort in trying to spin Milley’s statement as something that Trump might welcome rather than bristle at.
“I know one thing Gen. Milley regrets is that he was at the White House in his camouflage utility uniform,” Cotton said in an interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry and Sandra Smith. “By custom and courtesy, military officers always wear dress uniforms there.”…
“He is acting in the finest traditions of military leadership, and he is taking responsibility not just for the reality, but for perceptions,” Cotton said. “And if he thinks that perceptions reflected negatively on the commander in chief all the way down to our young troops who were out in Lafayette Park or on the streets of Washington, D.C. last week, then he’s going to take responsibility for it as a military leader. I commend him for that, and we all should.”
Milley doesn’t regret wearing his fatigues because he was underdressed for the White House, he regrets wearing them because they suggested he was preparing to do battle with Americans — which Trump doubtless loved. And Milley didn’t apologize for his role in the Lafayette Park photo op because his participation reflected badly on Trump, he apologized because it reflected badly on the military. Trump was thrilled, I’m sure, to have a powerful general at his side offering symbolic approval as the Park Police and the National Guard ran demonstrators out of the square.
Cotton knows all that. Either he’s trying to straddle both sides here, defending both Trump and Milley, or he’s trying to convince the president not to fire Milley by going on his favorite TV network to float this spin.