Trump shrugs off apology from top US general over St. John's photo-op

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE on Thursday said that he didn’t believe it was significant that the top U.S. general apologized for his role in the president’s photo opportunity outside St John’s Church last week.

Trump, who defended the controversial appearance as a “beautiful picture” during an interview with Fox News's Harris Faulkner, did not criticize Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley or Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump reportedly considering replacing Esper after election | FBI, Air Force investigating after helicopter shot at in Virginia | Watchdog says UK envoy made inappropriate comments on religion, race, sex Trump eyes replacing Esper after election: reports Overnight Defense: Esper confirms plans to drop below 5,000 troops in Afghanistan | State Department says it's cleared of wrongdoing in emergency arms sales before investigation's release MORE for speaking out following last Monday’s events but he shrugged off their statements in the comments, portions of which aired Friday morning.

“No,” Trump said when asked if he believed their statements were significant. “If that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine.” 

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Trump went on to tout his efforts to rebuild the U.S. military, claiming it was a “joke” and “depleted” when he took office 3 1/2 years ago. Trump also mentioned his administration’s work in starting up the U.S. Space Force.  

“I have good relationships with the military,” Trump said.

Milley, the top U.S. military officer, said during a video message at a graduation ceremony earlier Thursday that he regretted his involvement in Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church because it compromised the military’s apolitical image.

“I should not have been there,” Milley said during a recorded message aired at the graduation of the National Defense University. “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 essence of our republic,” Milley continued.

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Trump has faced wide criticism for the photo opportunity, which occurred minutes after protesters were forcibly cleared by law enforcement and National Guardsmen from Lafayette Square across from the White House.

Protests popped up in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., beginning late last month in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis.   

Trump was photographed in front of the church, which had been vandalized the evening prior during violent protests, holding up a Bible.

Milley, dressed in military fatigues, and Esper accompanied Trump to the church. The events have drawn pointed criticism from former military officials specifically.  

Esper has not criticized the photo opportunity or expressed regret for his involvement in it, but he sought to explain his role in the events at a press conference last week, saying he was aware of Trump’s destination but didn’t know it would be a photo opportunity.

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“I did know that following the president's remarks on Monday evening that many of us were wanting to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St. John's Episcopal Church,” Esper told reporters last Wednesday. “What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when we arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there.”

Esper also broke with Trump by saying he would not support the use of a U.S. law allowing active-duty troops to be dispatched to cities to quell domestic protests after Trump threatened to do so in order to crack down on looting and rioting. 

Esper’s statement caught the White House by surprise, and Trump reportedly considered firing the Defense secretary over the disagreement but was talked out of it.

Reports emerged Thursday that Milley discussed resigning after the criticism over his participation in the photo opportunity.