Top US military officer reaches out to Capitol Hill leaders

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FILE - In this June 1, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON – The nation's top military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, spoke privately with congressional leaders and many other lawmakers as Pentagon officials came under fire for the military's role in containing protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to express her concerns on Tuesday, according to two people who were not authorized to publicly discuss the private conversations and were granted anonymity. That was the day after authorities cleared protesters near the White House so President Donald Trump could hold a photo opportunity at a nearby church. Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were sharply criticized for accompanying Trump and thereby giving the impression of endorsing a politicization of the military.

Milley also reached out Tuesday to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, said another person granted anonymity to discuss the situation. A third official said Milley had spoke with perhaps 20 or more members of Congress in the days following Monday's photo op and Trump's implicit threat to invoke the Insurrection Act to permit him to use federal troops in a law enforcement role in the nation's capital and in other cities.

The outreach comes as Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have tried to contain damage in the aftermath of Monday’s walk with Trump. Federal authorities used smoke canisters and pepper balls to clear peaceful protesters from a park so the president and his entourage could walk to the church and Trump could pose with a Bible.

Late Friday, Esper and Milley declined a request from Democrats to appear before the House Armed Services Committee next week, although on Saturday the Pentagon said the door to testifying was still open.

“This is unacceptable,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee chairman, said in a statement Friday, joined by the panel's 30 Democrats.

“Our military leaders are sworn to be accountable to the people of this country, and Congress is constitutionally responsible for oversight,” the Democrats wrote. "They must appear and testify on these crucial matters in order to meet that responsibility.”

The Pentagon's chief spokesman, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, said Saturday evening that Esper and Milley “have not ‘refused’ to testify.” He said the Pentagon's legislative affairs office “remains in discussion with” the committee on its request for appearances by Esper and Milley. He said the Army's top civilian and uniformed officials, plus the head of the National Guard of Washington, D.C., will brief Smith's committee next week on the presence of the Guard in the capital.