MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
America's top general says he is sorry. In a video commencement address to the National Defense University, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, apologized for taking part in President Trump's controversial walk across Lafayette Square last week. Milley says his presence there was wrong. Well, our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is present with us now.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Tell us more of what General Milley said.
BOWMAN: Well, he said simply, I should not have been there, and that his presence in front of the church across from the White House created a perception of the military being involved in domestic politics. As you recall, the president had posed for a photo op, holding up a Bible in front of St. John's Church, where authorities had used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protests. Milley himself was highly visible that day, wearing battle fatigues as he walked through the square. Here's what else he had to say today.
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MARK MILLEY: 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. 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.
BOWMAN: He also went on to say to these graduates at National Defense University - who will, by the way, be future admirals and generals - that they must make sure to remain apolitical. And I'm told by officials Milley was also talking to the entire military as well.
KELLY: For those keeping track, we should note this is now both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense who have distanced themselves from the president's action that day.
BOWMAN: You know, that's right. Both Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have said they didn't know it was going to be a photo op, first of all. They thought they were going to just thank National Guard troops, check out damage at the church. Also, Gen. Milley was wearing fatigues, his aides say, because he was going to an FBI operation center, and that uniform seemed appropriate.
Now, Esper, by the way, said it wasn't right to use active duty troops to deal with protesters both in Washington and elsewhere. This is clearly something the president was contemplating. Some 2,000 or so active military police and paratroopers were ordered flown in to a base outside Washington. And Gen. Milley also argued with the president against using active forces as well, preferring the National Guard.
KELLY: Before I let you go, Tom, I do want to ask about one other area of disagreement between the Pentagon and the White House right now. This is over whether to rename bases that are named after Confederate commanders.
BOWMAN: That's right. Both Defense Secretary Esper and the Army secretary agreed to discuss changing the names of 10 Army bases named after Confederate generals when the bases opened during World War I and World War II. It's - this issue has come up again, a huge effort to change the bases. And - but the president quickly shot that down in a tweet, saying these names are part of American heritage. He will not do it.
KELLY: And has the Pentagon taken a position on this?
BOWMAN: Well, besides Esper and the Army secretary saying...
BOWMAN: ...We're willing to discuss it, nothing really more from the Pentagon. But a Senate committee today has called for a commission that would look into this issue and report back in three years to come up with recommendations on name changes. But it's not clear where anything will happen. One senator says he wants input from state leaders about whether these base names should be changed at all.
KELLY: All right - sounds like nothing imminent, at least if the Senate has anything to do with it. That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.