Nation's top military officer apologizes for role in Trump photo op outside church: '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," Milley said.

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By Allan Smith

Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized Thursday for his role in President Donald Trump's church photo op last week, saying he shouldn't have been at the scene.

"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 a prerecorded address at a commencement ceremony at the National Defense University in Washington. "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 continued. "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. And this is not easy. It takes time and work and effort. But it may be the most important thing each and every one of us does every single day."

Milley's comments come nearly two weeks after the president oversaw a harsh response to peaceful protesters who gathered outside the White House, which was met with condemnation by Democrats, criticism from a handful of Republicans, and pushback from retired military leaders, including Trump's former Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Moments after authorities forcefully cleared the area of protesters, Trump walked with military leaders through from the White House through Lafayette Square to St. John's Episcopal Church, which was damaged by a fire during protests earlier in the week. He stood in front of the church, held up a Bible, and had a few photos taken before returning to the White House. Moments before the crackdown, Trump vowed to use military might to curtail rioting.

President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church, on June 1, 2020, in Washington.Patrick Semansky / AP file

Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and others accompanied Trump to the church.

Speaking with NBC News, Esper said he thought the walk from the White House would be "to see some damage and talk to the troops." The following day, he said that he did know they were embarking on a trip to the church but that he did not know "exactly where we were going when I arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there."

Video of the incident, as published by The Washington Post, showed officers from several agencies deploying smoke canisters, explosives and irritants to clear the area.

Thursday afternoon, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally, said he had "deep admiration for and total confidence in" the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and supported his statement "in both substance and spirit."

Amid widespread criticism, including from Republican senators, over the forceful clearing of protesters and the photo op, Trump posted a tweet linking to an article critical of the media coverage, writing, "You got it wrong!" and pointing to initial comments from U.S. Park Police. "If the protesters were so peaceful, why did they light the Church on fire the night before? People liked my walk to this historic place of worship!"

Barr, in an interview with CBS's "Face the Nation," pointed to violence at previous protests as a reason for why the protesters needed to be pushed back, adding that those in attendance last Monday "were not peaceful protesters."

"This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd," Barr said. "It was an operation to move the perimeter one block."

The crackdown and Trump's walk to the church minutes later "were not connected," Barr said.