President Trump, in an extensive interview with Fox News, said he’s “fine” with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley’s move to express regret for accompanying the president during a photo op last week at Lafayette Square — while defending his own actions that day.
Speaking to “Outnumbered Overtime” host Harris Faulkner, the president responded to implicit criticism from Milley and other military figures over the handling of his visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House last week, after part of the church had been set on fire the night before.
The nearby park had been forcibly cleared of protesters shortly before the walk to the church, where Trump then held up a Bible.
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“I think it was a beautiful picture,” Trump told Fox News. “And I’ll tell you, I think Christians think it was a beautiful picture.”
The president was asked whether he felt the pushback he later got from Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper over that photo op was “significant.”
“No, no, I mean, if that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine,” he said, before touting his bond with the military.
“I have good relationships with the military. I’ve rebuilt our military. I spent two and a half trillion dollars—nobody else did,” he said.
He went on to claim that “when we took it over from President Obama and Biden, the military was a joke. The military was depleted. They had planes that were 50, 60 years old. They had old broken equipment. Our mil—we had no ammunition. We had no ammunition.”
“Now, we have the greatest military we’ve ever had,” he continued. “I have a very good—and we have a Space Force—I mean, I just did something that wasn’t done in almost 80 years. It’s a new force. And that’s where the future is—in space.”
The president’s comments come after Milley on Thursday addressed the controversy during a remote video speech to graduates at National Defense University, advising officers to “always maintain a keen sense of situational awareness.”
“As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched,” he said. “And I am not immune.
“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 continued. “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.”
He added: “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
Thursday was the first time Milley addressed the visit to Lafayette Square since the incident earlier this month.
Milley’s comments came amid tensions between top Pentagon officials – as well as retired military figures – and the president over the handling of the protests and riots surrounding the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd in police custody last month.
Prior to the Lafayette Square photo op, the area around the church was cleared of protesters, though there are conflicting claims over the tactics used. Critics say tear gas was used, while the Park Police specify that they used “pepper balls” – while not denying it’s a form a tear gas.
“I’m not going to say that pepper balls don’t irritate you,” spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Delgado told Vox. “I’m not saying it’s not a tear gas, but I’m just saying we use a pepper ball that shoots a powder.”
Meanwhile, the president also had pushed for active-duty military to confront rioters — which Esper said he opposed.
Esper also took issue with the visit to the church, saying last week that he was aware that he and the president, along with a number of others, were going to the church and Lafayette Square, but “did not know a photo op was happening” at the church before they got there. Esper stated he tries to keep himself and his department out of politics as best he can.
Fox News’ Harris Faulkner contributed to this report.