What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How Gen. Mark Milley became a political ‘prop’ during Trump photo op

The top U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, apologized for joining President Trump in a June 1 photo op amid protests over racial violence. Authorities had forcibly cleared protesters near the White House. In a recorded commencement address to the National Defense University, Milley called the decision “a mistake that I’ve learned from.” Nick Schifrin talks to retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is a split tonight between leading U.S. military leaders, current and former, and the president.

    The country's top military officer, the president's chief military adviser, has rhetorically broken with the commander in chief over his role in a controversial event last week.

    Nick Schifrin explores this critical moment in relations between the military and the White House.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, last Monday, President Trump walked out of the White House to pose for a photo outside of a church that had been slightly burned by protesters.

    Behind him walked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army General Mark Milley, America's senior most officer.

    Today, in a video address to National Defense University, Milley said his presence was a mistake.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Also today, West Point alumni wrote a letter urging graduates not to politicize the military, just a few days before President Trump addresses their graduation.

    And the president is resisting momentum inside and outside the military to rename bases that are currently named for Confederate generals.

    With me to discuss this critical moment in civilian-military relations is retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who most recently led U.S. Army Europe and has known General Milley for 20 years.

    General Hodges, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Why was it a mistake for General Milley to walk with the president as part of a photo opportunity?

  • Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges (Ret.):

    Well, Nick, thank you.

    Mark Milley recognized that he had let himself get into a political situation where he became a prop, actually, and therefore played into the situation where you had military getting involved in a diplomatic — excuse me — in a domestic situation.

    That was the mistake, and, of course, that's what he acknowledged today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Milley says that he didn't know he was walking toward that photo opportunity. Should he have figured it out earlier? Should he have turned around?

  • Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:

    Yes, I think part of what General Milley acknowledged in his public apology was that he, as a senior leader, knows that people are always watching him.

    He knows that he has an important constitutional role, and that he should have been more aware. I mean, given all the events of the past several day, the fact that he was in the Oval Office there meeting with the president and the secretary and others, and then knowing what was going on outside, what we call situational awareness, he acknowledged that he should have been more alive to the possibility of what could happen.

    Same thing for being in uniform. You know, in hindsight, clearly, the image of him being in that uniform sets a tone, not intended. And that was what he apologized for. His mistake was that he should have been more aware of these kinds of things and, frankly, recognized that, in this sort of set of personalities, that he would be used.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, of course, part of this tension is that the president threatened to use active-duty military troops to quell some of the protests, some of the violence in the United States.

    Why have so many military officials, Milley included, retired and active-duty, resisted the idea of using active-duty inside the United States?

  • Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:

    Because the idea of American soldiers being used — being put in a position where they use violence against our fellow citizens is anathema to everything that we believe in.

    From what we — from the day we start off as brand-new cadets or officers, you're trained to respect civilian authority and to protect our fellow citizens. That's the oath that we take.

    And so the idea that somehow soldiers would be in a position, regular Army soldiers put in a position to use violence against our fellow citizens just is repulsive to all of us. And that's you have seen so many people come out and say things, and, generally, even retired generals and admirals, who prefer not to get involved in things like this that are political, because of this tradition of apolitical military.

    But this was so — such an egregious situation, clearly not something calling for implementation of the Insurrection Act. The president had not made the case for that at all. And so I think, because of the tradition of an apolitical military, that's why the words of people like General Mattis and Colin Powell and others have had such resonance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let me give you some examples of forts that — whose name we all know, Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Fort Polk, some of the most famous military installations in the country, all named after Confederate generals.

    Is the military and its leaders beginning to acknowledge that they need to do better when it comes to race?

  • Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:

    Yes, this is going to change, these installations.

    And I have to tell you, I'm embarrassed. Of course, I went to Fort Benning. I have served at Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, all these places. And while I often thought it was unusual, I never thought deeply about it.

    And it was probably only about three years ago that I had sort of an epiphany that, while it didn't seem like a big deal to me, it would be a big deal to others. And now I'm embarrassed that it took me so many years to realize that this makes no sense.

    The more I think about it, the more indefensible it seems. These are not traditions dating back to the Revolution. Most of these forts were camps that were established just before the First World War or the Second World War for training and mobilization. So there's no long patriotic sort of legacy there that needs to be defended.

    I think we — the Navy has a good model, where they just name the base after the town. I would also recommend, though — I always believe in building something, something positive, vs. always tearing things town.

    And what a powerful statement it would be if there was a monument next to any Confederate statue or any of these sort of legacy things that listed the names of all the former slaves who joined the Union Army during the American Civil War, at huge risk to themselves. Thousands were killed.

    To have that monument there with those names next to an old legacy sort of statue, what a powerful statement that would be about the values that we really actually do believe in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Retired General Ben Hodges, thank you very much.

  • Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:

    Nick, thank you.

Listen to this Segment