The images provoked a swift wave of criticism from lawmakers and several senior former military officials who said they risked dragging the traditionally apolitical military into a contentious domestic political situation.
“As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched. And I am not immune. As many of you saw, the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week. That sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society,” Milley said in his pre-recorded speech to a group of graduates from the National Defense University.
“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. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it,” he added.
Milley also said that he was “outraged” by the killing of George Floyd and added that the protests it sparked spoke to “centuries of injustice toward African Americans.”
The comments mark an extraordinary moment of America’s top general apologizing for an appearance with his commander in chief, and doing so while speaking to a group of future military officers and leaders.
“Having the most senior officer in the ranks admit a serious mistake – and make clear he intends to learn from it – will serve as a powerful example to junior officers and troops that no one is immune from screwing up and that no one’s credibility is enhanced by refusing to admit it,” said CNN military analyst John Kirby, a retired Navy Rear Admiral.
“Gen. Milley’s comments about the need to keep the military out of politics were timely and — all too sadly these days — appropriate to the pressures under which our troops labor. He was right to point out that he himself got mixed up in it,” he said. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of what else he said. Too often, the military burdens itself with a zero-defect mentality. They don’t make it easy to own up to errors in judgement,” Kirby added.
They also come after many former leaders publicly broke with the President on a host of issues, including the use of active duty troops to quell the protests triggered by Floyd’s death and renaming military bases named after Confederate generals.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of the President, issued a statement of support for Milley in the wake of the general’s video statement Thursday.
“I have nothing but deep admiration for and total confidence in General Milley as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the South Carolina Republican wrote. “I support his statement in both substance and spirit regarding the recent presidential visit to St. John’s.”
“General Milley is a tremendous military leader who understands the long tradition of maintaining an apolitical, nonpartisan military,” Graham added.
Esper on shaky ground
Both Milley and Esper have told colleagues they are distressed with the criticism about the walk to St. John’s because it became a photo-op with political overtones. When asked if they regret being on the walk, one administration official close to both men recently told CNN, “Of course they do.”
Esper similarly acknowledged the problematic nature of the appearance, telling reporters at the Pentagon last week “I was not aware of a photo-op was happening,” adding that he tried “to stay out of situations that may appear political, and sometimes I’m successful with doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful.”
Milley ‘outraged’ by ‘brutal killing’ of George Floyd
In his speech, Milley also addressed the event that sparked the protests, the death of Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, as well as the challenges of racism within the military and American society.
“I am outraged by the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd. His death amplified the pain, the frustration, and the fear that so many of our fellow Americans live with day in, day out,” Milley said.
“The protests that have ensued not only speak to his killing, but also to the centuries of injustice toward African Americans,” he added, saying “we should all be proud that the vast majority of protests have been peaceful.”
Defense officials have told CNN that Milley lobbied Trump against using active duty troops to quell some of the violent protests that broke out in the wake of Floyd’s death, recommending that local law enforcement backed by National Guard troops under local control handle the situation.
“We never introduced federal troops on the streets of America as a result of the combined efforts of the Guard and law enforcement at quelling the violence and de-escalating very very tense situations,” Milley said in his speech.
America’s top uniformed officer also addressed racial inequality within the armed forces, saying” our military has a mixed record on equality.”
“While the military sets an example for civil society through our inclusiveness, we too have not come far enough. We all need to do better. For example, although the United States military has a higher proportion of African Americans serving in our ranks than in society at large, only 7% of our flag and general officers are African American,” he said, adding “we must, we can, and we will do better.”