RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The divide between the Pentagon and the White House grows ever deeper. In a video commencement address to the National Defense University, the nation's top military officer, General Mark Milley, said he was sorry. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized for being part of the entourage that accompanied President Trump across Lafayette Square from the White House over to a nearby church for a photo op.
Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So what exactly did General Milley say here?
BOWMAN: Well, it was really extraordinary. He said, I should not have been there at Lafayette Square in front of the church - and said his presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As you recall, president posed for a photo op at the church after authorities had used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.
Milley himself was highly visible that day, wearing battle fatigues as he walked through the square. Now, his officials at the Pentagon said, well, he dresses that way because he was going to go to the operations center so that's not really a big deal. But it did cause consternation, you know, among retired officers and others. And listen, here's what else he had to say at NDU today.
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MARK MILLEY: As many of you saw, the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week - that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned, uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from. And I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.
BOWMAN: And he went on to say, Rachel, that - to these graduates who will be the future admirals and generals, that they must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military. And this comes in the wake of Defense Secretary Mark Esper's distancing himself from the White House, saying he didn't agree that active troops should have been used or could have been used in the - against the protesters, although the president was basically saying, I'm going to use the military to dominate. He said he was against that.
MARTIN: I mean, it's sort of an understatement to say that the president's relationship with the military he oversees has been complicated - and now this. I mean, help us understand the significance of this apology in this broader relationship.
BOWMAN: Well, it's very significant. And General Milley's basically sending the message to the troops - listen, you know, we can't get involved in politics. This is the wrong thing to do. But you have a president who has really no knowledge of the military talking about my generals, as he has in the past, or going to military bases and saying, I know you soldiers support me. This is clearly a pushback from - at the White House. You can't get involved in these kinds of things with active-duty military. And again, I think is basically standing up to the White House is what we're seeing here.
But the big thing, again, is General Milley wants to tell the troops, listen, I made a mistake. We can't get involved in politics; we have to stay apolitical.
MARTIN: And we have to acknowledge that this is all happening in the backdrop of another debate over the symbolism of Confederate statues, Confederate flags and the renaming, perhaps, of American military bases that have been named after Confederate generals. And this is just another issue where the president and the military disagree, the military at least wanting to have that conversation.
BOWMAN: Yeah. They want to have their conversation, and basically, President Trump's saying, will not happen. This is part of American heritage.
MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you so much, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.
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