President Donald Trump’s fraught relations with senior military officers ratcheted up another notch on Thursday as Gen. Mark Milley, the top U.S. general, formally apologized for appearing in Trump’s June 1 photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church after police and National Guard officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas to clear protesters from nearby Lafayette Square, across from the White House.
“I should not have been there,” Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a prerecorded 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.”
Last week, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who also appeared in the photo-op, told reporters that he too shouldn’t have been there, further claiming that he didn’t know where he was going when Trump led him to the church. Esper also said that he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act to bring active-duty soldiers to quell disorder in D.C., as Trump had threatened to do. Esper’s remarks earned him a chewing-out in the Oval Office. Whether the same will happen to Milley—who has reportedly been agonizing over his role in Trump’s politicization of the military—is a matter of some suspense.
In between the June 1 incident and now, several senior officers, retired and still serving, have spoken out against the idea of using active-duty troops against the American citizens who have been demonstrating since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who had resigned in protest as secretary of defense in December 2018, used the occasion to criticize Trump himself, lambasting his presidency as “three years without mature leadership.”
Trump is scheduled to give a commencement address this Saturday to the graduating cadets at West Point. Rather than delivering it remotely, as various leaders have done for other military academies, Trump—against the wishes of West Point’s leaders—demanded that the Army cadets return to campus, isolate themselves for two weeks, and then, during the ceremony itself, sit in tight formation, ignoring CDC guidelines on social distancing. Of the 1,100 graduating cadets, 17 have tested positive for the coronavirus. The whole business, which seems designed to provide footage of Trump speaking before the newest flock of military officers for his reelection campaign, has sparked quiet resentment from many in the Army.
Meanwhile, in another brewing conflict between Trump and a military culture that’s suddenly, swiftly modernizing, the Republican-chaired Senate Armed Services Committee late Wednesday approved a motion giving the Defense Department three years to change the names of all military bases, installations, and street signs named after Confederate officers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren offered the amendment to the defense authorization bill; the motion was approved in a voice vote, signaling that it will almost certainly be adopted by the full Senate.
Then, on Thursday, Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill giving the Defense Department just one year to change the names. She sponsored a similar bill in 2017 that garnered so little support it didn’t even come up for a vote on the House floor.
The world has since changed. Just in recent days, several prominent Army officers—notably retired Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan—have said it’s time to remove the names of the treasonous secessionists who fought against the United States in the Civil War from U.S. military facilities, including 10 large Army bases in former Confederate Southern states. In response, acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said that he would be open to a “bipartisan conversation” on the matter.
But Trump reacted with fury to the whole idea, tweeting on Wednesday that he “will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.” He finished off his tweet, laden with more capitalized letters than usual: “Respect our Military!”—although he clearly has no notion of what real military officers, who have deployed for real combat from these bases, really think.
All of this is taking place as Trump’s ratings have slid by as much as 10 percentage points just in the past week, owing in part to his hostile and aggressive response to the protests and to his political exploitation of church property, a move that has damaged his standing with many evangelicals. Now, he’s picking a high-profile fight with the military as well.
The awkward thing about Milley is that Trump appointed him Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman in 2019. The post has a term of four years, so he is nowhere near retiring—though, in accordance with his powers as commander in chief, Trump could fire him. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Eliot Cohen, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, wrote about the Trump era’s growing crisis in civil-military relations, concluding, “The real demonstration of military courage by a general in such a position is … the willingness to be fired.” Milley may soon face that test.