The Pentagon’s top general discussed resigning amid criticism over his participation in President Donald Trump’s controversial photo op at a Washington church, three defense officials familiar with the matter told NBC News.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized over the incident Thursday, saying, “I should not have been there.”
The apology came after a tumultuous 10 days for Milley that involved a flash of anger at an Oval Office meeting over the use of active duty troops to quell protests and culminated in him speaking with confidantes about whether he should resign over the staged visit at St. John’s Episcopal Church, the officials said.
The events began on the morning of June 1 following a night of violent protests and looting in Washington that left the historic St. John’s church damaged and national monuments covered in graffiti.
In an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and Milley, the president said he was angry that the National Guard had not been deployed in Washington, a senior administration official said.
The president’s message was: “We have to get the capital under control. What can we do? I don’t care if you have to put 10,000 National Guard out there,” the official said.
A discussion ensued over invoking the Insurrection Act to send in active duty troops to quash the unrest triggered by the death of George Floyd, the official said, but Esper, Milley, and Barr all pushed back on the idea.
Milley became so fired up explaining why using active duty troops was dangerous that he shook his fists to emphasize his points, according to three defense officials familiar with the meeting. The officials asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the private meeting.
After the meeting, Esper and other military leaders began a full-court press effort to encourage the nation’s governors to activate their National Guard forces on state duty. The defense officials said they hoped to get enough Guard forces working that the active duty troops would not be necessary.
At 1 p.m., the 82nd Airborne Brigade Immediate Response Force was ordered to deploy from Fort Bragg to Fort Belvoir. About 1,000 paratroopers would be ready to respond in Washington if the president invoked the Insurrection Act.
That afternoon, Milley was prepared to go to the FBI Field office, the command hub for the response to protests in the city. Thinking he would be there for several hours, he wore his combat fatigues, three defense officials said. But he was unexpectedly called to the White House for the president’s Rose Garden address, the officials said.
“It didn’t make sense to go all the way back to the Pentagon to change when he was already in the city,” a senior defense official said.
But a military historian and four former aides to previous Joint Chiefs chairmen said it’s customary to keep an extra uniform in the car for such emergencies.
David Segal, the founding director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, said he was surprised to see Milley go to the June 1 White House meeting in his combat fatigues.
“That in itself is a break from the past,” Segal said, adding that the Joint Chiefs of Staff always go to the White House in their dress blues and even keep an extra uniform in the car in case they are suddenly called to an emergency meeting.
Just before the President’s Rose Garden address got underway, federal officers used tear gas and flash bangs to force back peaceful protesters gathered near the White House.
Following Trump’s speech, he led a group of senior officials and aides across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church, where he held up a bible and posed for photos.
Esper stood with him. Milley did not know he was going to the church for a photo op and when he realized what was happening he tried to back away to avoid being in the photos, according to the defense officials.
Milley was later caught on video walking the streets of Washington, visiting the National Guard soldiers, wearing his combat fatigues, prompting criticism that the nation’s capital was being militarized.
That evening, Milley spent hours looking at social media and reading news articles and saw dozens of people criticizing him for being at the photo op and walking around the city in his combat uniform, according to the defense officials. He stayed up much of the night reading social media. He also reached out to confidantes, asking them for advice and discussing whether he should resign, the officials said.
A defense official confirmed that Milley did speak “to several of his long-standing mentors to discuss his situation.” The official said Milley did not call them asking if he should resign, but acknowledged that there was criticism and calls for his resignation, so “it’s a topic that’s going to come up.”
A spokesperson for Milley said “conversations between the chairman and his mentors are private conversations and we are not going to comment on them.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
In the days after the photo op, Democratic members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee called Milley, expressing their disappointment that he was part of the event – some members even yelling at him, according to three people familiar with the conversations. They were also upset about Esper being involved.
Esper has since distanced himself from the staged visit at the church, saying he thought he was going to look at damage and talk to the troops.
On Thursday, Milley expressed regret for taking part in Trump’s walk from the White House toward the church.
“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,” Milley said in a prerecorded address at a commencement ceremony at the National Defense University in Washington.
“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.”