WASHINGTON – In his first eight months as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley carefully crafted a low-key public profile. He knew that splashy and sassy were unlikely to endear him to his boss, President Donald Trump.
Then “the walk” happened.
Milley, in his camouflage battle dress uniform, strolled with Trump and a presidential entourage across Lafayette Square on June 1 to be positioned in front of a church, where Trump held up a Bible for photographers. Critics immediately hit Milley, the nation's top military officer, for appearing to be a political pawn. On Thursday, he finally spoke out.
“It was a mistake,” he said — simple words that thrust the square-jawed general into the public spotlight like never before. That risked further antagonizing a president who dislikes any hint of criticism of his staged events and has made his embrace of military power a theme of his reelection campaign.
Asked in a Fox News interview Thursday whether he thought Milley's expression of regret was significant, Trump said, “No, I don't think so. I mean, if that's the way they feel, I think that's fine.”
Milley's words drew praise from some members of Congress, including Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, but added a new layer of tension between the Pentagon and the White House. That tension burst into public last week with Defense Secretary Mark Esper openly breaking with Trump on the use of federal troops to quell protests.
Milley's willingness to admit he erred reflects a personal commitment to a principle deeply rooted in American military tradition: that members of the military are apolitical, sworn to defend the Constitution, not a president. Civilians are supposed to control the military, but not for personal political gain.
That commitment had been questioned after the walk. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War veteran, said seeing Milley and Esper “walking like lapdogs” behind Trump sends “a horrifying message to our troops — including our black and brown troops — that our military’s leaders will not protect them from unlawful orders.”