America’s top military officer has apologised for joining Donald Trump during his controversial photo opportunity at a church near the White House.
The event took place after authorities dispersed peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets from the churchyard to clear the path for the US president.
“I should not have been there,” said General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a pre-recorded video address to the National Defense University.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Gen Milley and Defence Secretary Mark Esper walked with Mr Trump from the White House to St John’s Episcopal Church on 1 June, where the president held up a Bible for photographers.
“As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it,” added the general.
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The president’s photo op drew condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans, while the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said she was “outraged”.
Reverend Mariann Budde, whose diocese St. John’s belongs to, said afterwards: “He was using our church as the backdrop and the Bible as a prop in ways that I found to be deeply offensive”.
Known as The Church of the Presidents, St John’s had suffered fire damage in a protest.
Gen Milley’s statement risks the wrath of a president sensitive to any hints of criticism of events he has staged.
It also comes as Pentagon leaders’ relations with the White House remain tense after a disagreement last week over President Trump’s threat to use federal troops to quell civil unrest triggered by George Floyd‘s death.
Protests have spread nationwide in response to the killing of Mr Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes in Minneapolis on 25 May.
Mr Esper told a news conference last week that when they left the White House he thought they were going to inspect damage in Lafayette Square and at the church, and mingle with National Guard troops in the area.
Mr Esper and Gen Milley also let it be known through their spokesmen this week that they were open to a “bipartisan discussion” of whether the 10 Army bases named after Confederate Army officers should be renamed, as a gesture aiming to disassociate the military from the racist legacy of the Civil War.
On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that he would never allow the names to be changed, catching some in the Pentagon by surprise.
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