June 11 (UPI) -- Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley apologized Thursday for his role in a photo opportunity last week by the White House and President Donald Trump during which protesters were forcefully cleared away by police.
Milley, Trump and Defense Secretary Mike Esper walked from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church, where the president was photographed holding a Bible. To get there, they walked through Lafayette Square after U.S. Park Police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of activists who were protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
The show of force came shortly after Trump threatened to mobilize thousands of active U.S. military members to quell violent demonstrators.
Speaking at a virtual graduation ceremony for students at National Defense University Thursday, Milley said his appearance was "a mistake."
"I should not have been there," he said. "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.
"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."
Milley called Floyd's death "senseless and brutal" and praised the national movement that's followed as evidence that "freedom is working."
"We never introduced federal troops on the streets of American as a result of the combined efforts of the National Guard and law enforcement at quelling the violence and deescalating very, very tense situations," he said.
Milley also said the U.S. military must learn from the protests and do more to erase "centuries of injustice" to black Americans. He acknowledged that only a handful of black officers hold the top posts in all branches of the military.
Protesters demand justice in police killing of George Floyd
Protesters gather in Washington Square Park in New York City on June 9. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo