There is a funny moment in an otherwise striking apology from Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a prerecorded speech for the National Defense University commencement ceremony Thursday, Milley flatly said that he “should not have been there,” referring to his appearance beside the president in a photo-op at Lafayette Square. He was responding to a growing fissure between the Trump administration and the U.S. military, and he went on to say that his appearance, in full military dress, immediately after federal authorities had forcibly removed peaceful protesters from the square, was inappropriate: “As many of you saw the results of the photograph of me in Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society,” Milley said. “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” The funny moment? It’s his use of the word perception.
What exactly was Milley’s role here? He let himself be invoked in a phone call earlier that day, between President Donald Trump and governors from around the country, as Trump urged them to “dominate” the streets. Trump announced that Milley, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military, would be “in charge,” and then we all saw his jaunt through Lafayette Square in battle fatigues. Which means this was not about a “perception” of the military injected into domestic politics but about the actual fact of the military injected into domestic politics. The fact that Milley has come to regret and deplore his role in the chilling set piece doesn’t change the fact that for a few hours on June 1, Donald Trump sought to have the National Guard, the 82nd Airborne Division, a Black Hawk, and a Lakota helicopter quell a peaceful protest, and that some of those actions actually came to pass as the military scrambled to mollify him.
I raise this not to vilify Milley, now one of many military leaders who has found himself in the unenviable position of having to explain why so very many military leaders have succumbed to Trump’s most violent, unconstitutional, and malevolent impulses, and ended up having to apologize for them later. After all, we witnessed in the days after the brinksmanship at Lafayette Square the spectacle of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis calling out the use of the military for domestic political purposes. Mattis implicitly accused Milley of allowing troops “to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.” And in the days following Mattis’ broadside, we have seen members of the military break with the president over removal of the names of Confederate leaders from military bases, and a letter posted Thursday on Medium, from hundreds of West Point alumni warning the Class of 2020, to whom Trump will be delivering an address on Saturday, to uphold its oath to the Constitution and not to a political leader. So fragile is this moment between the commander in chief and the military that the president now claims that when he told governors last week to “dominate the streets” he really meant that he intended to have them dominate with force and compassion. What we saw happen on Lafayette Square wasn’t a problem of perception—it was a problem of reality, a reality that was swiftly and thankfully revoked and regretted, yes, but a reality nonetheless.
Heather Digby Parton gets at the meat of the problem when she notes that “this episode illustrates one of the ongoing destructive dynamics of the Trump administration. The president makes mad demands and, in order to keep him from doing his worst, people around him appease him with flattery or come up with slightly less bad options and then scurry to carry them out.” The result, she writes is that “in the process, so many of them destroy their credibility and their reputations. Even if they succeed in short-circuiting the very worst of Trump’s impulses, their willingness to appease him always produces bad outcomes anyway.” But I would go one further: It’s not simply that Trump keeps taking us to the very brink of constitutional crisis at which point the people around him manage to mitigate the worst of it while destroying their own careers and reputations in the process. It’s that time and time again we actually cross the brink into constitutional crisis, and then comfort ourselves with claims that it never actually happened, or that it just appeared to have happened.
The fact that Milley now feels bad about striding around a public space where peaceful protesters were attacked by law enforcement officials doesn’t mean he merely created an appearance of a crisis. It means he helped provoke a crisis and now feels badly about it. The fact that Don McGahn wrote a letter to a secret file saying that he felt bad when the president told him to do illegal things doesn’t create an “appearance” of illegal activity. Time and time again, the president does dangerous, criminal, unconstitutional and illegal things, and the people who aid and abet him apologize for the fact that it looked bad. It looks bad because it is bad, and nobody is off the hook afterward for saying that had there been a second take with a better script and a more able director, it would not have been a problem.
I’m mindful of this dichotomy—between how things look and how they really are—only because those West Point cadets waiting to hear from their commander in chief on Saturday have evidently been warned by Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the superintendent at West Point, that, according to the Washington Post, their task is to try to “tune out” the political debates: “They’re going to lead our nation’s sons and daughters and support our Constitution, defend it, and perhaps even die for it,” Williams said. “I’ve told them to focus on the things you can control. These young men and women will carry our values and our ideals all around the world. We’re steadfast on those things, despite what may be happening around them.” This would be really good guidance were these cadets listening to an address by say, Keira Knightley or a talking horse. But they are being addressed by the president of the United States, and the movie they are being instructed to “tune out” is the reality of a situation in which the president sought to use the military—that would be them—to put down a peaceful domestic protest. That isn’t something cadets should avoid contemplating; it’s something that should terrify them. There are exceptions to the rule, but more often than not with this administration, the things that cause an “appearance” of constitutional catastrophe do so because they are, in fact, constitutional catastrophes. And while it would be nice to be able to change the channel, tune out the politics, and oopsie our way out of meaningful accountability, the very last people for whom that line should be fuzzed over are the young men and women who need most desperately to understand the difference.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to The Gist on Apple Podcasts or listen below.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.