WASHINGTON — The country’s top military official apologized on Thursday for taking part in President Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op after authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters.
“I should not have been there,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a prerecorded video commencement address to National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
His first public remarks since Mr. Trump’s photo op, in which federal authorities attacked peaceful protesters so that the president could hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Church, are certain to anger the White House, where Mr. Trump has spent the days since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis taking increasingly tougher stances against the growing movement for change across the country.
On Wednesday, the president picked another fight with the military, slapping down the Pentagon for considering renaming Army bases named after Confederate officers who fought against the Union in the Civil War.
The back and forth between Mr. Trump and the Pentagon in recent days is evidence of the deepest civil-military divide since the Vietnam War — except this time, military leaders, after halting steps in the beginning, are now positioning themselves firmly with those calling for change.
Mr. Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square, current and former military leaders say, has sparked a critical moment of reckoning in the military.
“As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from,” General Milley said. He said he had been angry about “the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd,” and repeated his opposition to Mr. Trump’s suggestions that federal troops be deployed nationwide to quell protests.
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. The two had already exchanged sharp words last Monday when General Milley engaged the president in a heated discussion in the Oval Office over whether to send active-duty troops into the streets, according to people in the room.
General Milley argued that the scattered fires and looting in some places were dwarfed by the peaceful protests, and should be handled by the states, which command local law enforcement.
Mr. Trump acquiesced, but he has continued to hold out the threat of sending active-duty troops into the street.
Last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper called a news conference to announce that he, too, opposed invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops across the country to quell protests, a line that a number of American military officials say they will not cross.
The president, aides say, has been furious with both Mr. Esper and General Milley since then.