After photo op debacle, Pentagon leaders try to regroup

The Pentagon’s top two leaders, after stumbling last week in their response to racial unrest across the country, are now actively pushing back against their commander in chief in their renewed quest to keep politics out of the military.

But in distancing themselves from their boss, both are risking their jobs as the Pentagon faces a crisis in public confidence not seen in decades.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Thursday broke his silence on the murder of George Floyd and military leadership’s handling of peaceful demonstrations over racial injustice and police violence that swept the nation in past weeks. He expressed his regret for walking with President Donald Trump across Lafayette Square for a photo op on June 1 after authorities forcefully cleared the area of protesters.

In a prerecorded video commencement address to National Defense University, Milley called the appearance a "mistake."

"I should not have been there," said Milley. "As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church.
President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church.

The images of Milley walking the streets of D.C. in his combat uniform — and of Defense Secretary Mark Esper appearing in a group photo with the president after law enforcement fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters — prompted outrage from current and retired officials. Many accused Pentagon leaders of allowing Trump to inappropriately politicize the military.

Two days after that incident, Esper addressed reporters at the Pentagon, distanced himself from the photo op and said he was against deploying active-duty troops to handle civic unrest, something Trump had threatened to do.

This account of the days following the photo op and the tension with the White House that followed is drawn from interviews with nine officials in the Pentagon and the White House, along with four people close to the discussions over the past two weeks, many of whom have been critical of Milley and Esper’s actions.

Since Trump’s walk to St. John's Episcopal Church and all the criticism that came after it, Milley and Esper now find themselves with the unenviable task of not only trying to restore America’s confidence in its armed forces, but of also managing the Pentagon’s frayed relationship with the White House.

It’s an awkward spot to be in. Rifts between the White House and the Pentagon are normal, but it’s rare for them to play out publicly. In this administration, it’s becoming common for a Pentagon leader to make a statement, only to be undercut by a surprise Trump tweet.

“With both Milley and Esper coming out and distancing themselves from the photo op that the president decided on and executed, I cannot imagine that the White House is happy,” said Nora Bensahel, a visiting professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The frustration cuts both ways. Trump “has zero support from current and former senior military, civilian and uniform,” said one former administration official close to the Pentagon who requested anonymity to relay sensitive discussions.

Pentagon spokesperson Christopher Sherwood, when asked about the working relationship between the three, said: “The Secretary and Chairman continue to be focused on supporting the men and women in uniform and implementing the National Defense Strategy at the President’s direction.”

The relationship between Milley and Esper is the subject of intense scrutiny, both inside and outside the Pentagon. Milley, in particular, has been a controversial figure since Trump picked him for the job in December 2018, ignoring the recommendation of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Milley’s often brash and outspoken manner, as well as his close relationship with Trump, prompted concerns that the four-star general would overshadow Esper, a former junior Army officer turned-Pentagon bureaucrat and industry executive, tipping the balance of civil-military power toward those in uniform.

Milley’s unique role in the Trump administration has been thrust into the spotlight this month as the military was forced to respond to protests across the country over racial injustice and police brutality. The chairman holds an advisory position and has no legal authority over military forces, yet Trump proclaimed he would put Milley “in charge” of the administration’s response to the unrest.

“Milley’s bumbling decision [last week] week kind of rendered him damaged goods,” said Mara Karlin, director of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former Pentagon official. “He has gained some credibility back with his letter to the force, but it is tenuous. [Milley’s] actions will be watched with a very, very careful eye across the Pentagon and across the force.”

Over the past week, Milley, Esper and other service leaders have released letters to the force calling on service members to remember their oaths to defend Americans’ constitutionally given rights to free speech and peaceful protest.

Behind the scenes, the two have spent the past two weeks working to shield the military from Trump, with limited success. During discussions about deploying active-duty troops on the streets, Milley and Esper argued strongly with Trump that managing the protests should be left to the National Guard and local law enforcement, according to two defense officials who, like others interviewed for this story, declined to be named in order to discuss a sensitive issue.

Esper spent hours making phone calls to governors asking them to send National Guardsmen in order to avoid deploying active-duty troops on the streets of the nation’s capital. And both men have called and met with lawmakers to discuss the situation, according to the officials.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, right, during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, right, during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

During the discussions over using the Insurrection Act to deploy the active-duty military, Milley and Esper went head-to-head with Attorney General William Barr and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who argued in favor of that course, said one administration official. After the photo op, Milley considered resigning, according to NBC News.

In the immediate aftermath, Milley deliberately kept a low profile, according to three defense officials. The general focused on playing the “good soldier” and “battle buddy,” filling in Esper on his private conversations with the president — Trump is known to dial Milley directly instead of calling Esper — said another source close to the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, Esper bore the brunt of the ire from the White House. His public opposition to using active-duty troops angered the president, according to people inside and near the White House. Staffers even began drawing up a list of names of possible replacements. The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump was on the brink of firing Esper, and the defense secretary was preparing to draft a resignation letter.

But the photo op hasn’t been Esper’s only problem. He took heavy fire for calling domestic protest areas a “battle space” and was faulted for taking too long to address the death of George Floyd. The actions drew swift rebukes from retired military leaders, most notably Mattis, who had previously pledged to avoid criticizing members of this administration.

This week, both leaders are in the hot seat. Trump shocked senior officials on Wednesday with a series of tweets opposing the renaming of Army installations named after Confederate generals, just two days after Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy opened the door to doing so. Milley had also said publicly that he “fully supports the discussion” of renaming bases.

Milley did not help his relationship with the White House with his comments on Thursday, in which he acknowledged that his presence in Lafayette Square last week inappropriately politicized the military, said one of the defense officials.

"That sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society," said Milley in his address. "My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.

"We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation, and we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic," he said.

Milley made the remarks to an audience of National Defense University graduates, a symbolic move reflecting efforts to set the right tone for future national security leaders.

Retired Army Col. Joseph Collins, who taught at NDU from 2004 to 2019, said Milley had a “captive audience” for his mea culpa.

"This is the educational bridge to the level where decision-making and civil-military relations comes to the forefront — the domestic context,” he said. “You are not just managing the brigade. You may be advising the chairman. Some of them will literally go to the Joint Staff and be writing papers for the secretary of defense."

Collins, who now teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said he has not seen the civilian-military relationship so out of balance since the Vietnam War.

“When they see the chairman of the Joint Chiefs sucked into what was effectively a political demonstration, people are concerned about the politicization of the military as much as they are concerned about the militarization of police forces.”

Milley's entire speech has been published on Facebook, first privately and then later opened up for the world to read.

For now, it seems that both men will keep their jobs. There is little appetite in Congress to confirm a new defense secretary just five months before an election, and in the midst of a pandemic and massive civil unrest. And Milley is known for his ability to speak candidly and forcefully to Trump.

“He has a trusted relationship with the president, but when it comes down to it, Gen. Milley is always going to offer what he believes to be true,” a defense official said. “He has got a very powerful, strong personality. I think that sometimes that intimidates people. It doesn’t intimidate the president.”

Meridith McGraw and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.