Read: James Mattis denounces President Trump, describes him as a threat to the Constitution
Today, in his first public remarks, Milley acknowledged that he’d made a mistake.
“I should not have been there,” Milley said in a videotaped commencement address to National Defense University, first reported by The New York Times. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
These are weasel words: It wasn’t merely an impression. Milley’s presence, as well as other decisions made by Defense Department officials, directly involved the military in domestic politics.
The sequence of events that allowed that to happen, and what we know of the internal discussions around it, serve as a reminder that working for Trump forces officials into impossible choices between respecting the Constitution and norms or following the president. Often, like Milley, they manage to avoid one terrible outcome only by effecting a different one.
Milley attributed his error to, essentially, losing perspective. “Always maintain a keen sense of situational awareness,” he told NDU graduates. “As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched. And I am not immune.”
Giving in to Trump’s desire to send active-duty military into the streets would, in fact, have been a disaster. Even Barr, who is willing to rubber-stamp nearly any assertion of presidential authority, argued as much, and said Trump shouldn’t quarter the 82nd in the district. Since the Lafayette Square incident, Trump has sent home the paratroopers he’d called to Washington, returned National Guard units to the states that dispatched them, and dropped discussion of the Insurrection Act. Quashing the plan was a victory, of sorts.
Mike Mullen: I cannot remain silent
But talking Trump out of it required a Faustian bargain. The Monday-night clearance of Lafayette Square and the surrounding streets proved to be a disaster for the military anyway. Top civilian and uniformed leaders allowed themselves to be seen as props, and the D.C. National Guard—which reports directly to the Pentagon—helped assist in the forcible clearance of demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights, all so Trump could make a stilted appearance with a Bible. Esper, the defense secretary, has sought to distance himself from the photo op, saying he didn’t know what was planned when the group left the White House. The Pentagon also previously said Milley believed they were going to review troops and didn’t know about the clearance.
To get Trump to back off his demand to use active-duty troops, Pentagon officials had to push for a show of force that would sate the president’s insistence that protesters be “dominated.” The Times reported:
Senior Army leaders—in an effort to prevent what they feared would be a calamitous outcome if President Trump ordered combat troops from the 82nd Airborne Division holding just outside city limits to the streets—leaned heavily on the Guard to carry out aggressive tactics to prove it could do the job without active-duty forces.
Perhaps for military leaders, the distinction between the Guard cracking down on peaceful protesters and active-duty troops was meaningful. For the ordinary citizen, though, the images were clear: Troops in fatigues were breaking up demonstrations in Lafayette Square, and Milley was striding behind the president. In short, to paraphrase a Vietnam-era coinage, the military had to crack down on protesters to prevent the military from cracking down on protesters.