Somewhere President Harry Truman is rolling his eyes.
Here is the headline in the Washington Post:
Pentagon’s top general apologizes for appearing alongside Trump in Lafayette Square
The Post story begins by reporting this:
The Pentagon’s top general apologized on Thursday for appearing alongside President Trump near the White House after authorities forcibly removed peaceful protesters from the area, saying that it “was a mistake that I have learned from.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the remarks in a prerecorded graduation speech to students at the National Defense University. He has been roundly criticized for thrusting the military into politics by walking alongside the president on June 1 as Trump traveled on foot to a nearby church that had been damaged during protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
Milley advised the students that it is important to keep “a keen sense of situational awareness” and that he had failed to do so as he walked from Lafayette Square in combat fatigues alongside the president, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other senior advisers.
Here is an earlier headline from the Washington Post:
St. John’s Episcopal Church, historic church next to the White House, set on fire during protests
To be clear, yes, of course, Gen. Milley is a patriot who has served his country well. But let’s cut to the chase.
Religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution thusly, bold print for emphasis supplied:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Burning a church is an attempt to prohibit the free exercise of religious liberty. It is the most fundamental of a president’s responsibilities to defend religious liberty — as the Constitution says. There is nothing — nothing — either wrong or unusual about a president traveling to a church or defending religious liberty. In fact, it is a president’s constitutional duty to defend religious liberty, as he is sworn to defend the Constitution in his oath of office.
On June 26, 2015, President Obama traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, to honor those killed in the racist assault on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In fact, as is standard procedure, he was accompanied by members of the military assigned to the White House Military Office. Said the president as he discussed the importance of churches, bold print for emphasis supplied:
The church is and always has been the center of African-American life — a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.
Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah — rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.
That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. When there’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel — a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes.
The outcry from anyone in the military about being forced to accompany the president on this trip? Zero.
Gen. Milley said this in his statement:
As many of you saw the results of the photograph of me in 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 the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.
On July 4, 1986 — an election year — when I was a young aide to President Reagan, I went to New York for a celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. Not only were the president and Mrs. Reagan there in person, it was, if one wants to play Gen. Milley’s game, a spectacular example “of the military involved in domestic politics.”
I was greeted at a designated dock on the side of New York harbor and transported by the Navy to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, where I was surrounded by all manner of prominent Americans and presidential political allies of the day — plus hundreds of members of the United States Navy. Not far distant was the battleship USS Iowa, where the president and Mrs. Reagan reviewed a parade of tall ships. That evening the president would stand on the Iowa’s deck to address the nation. Did I mention that 1986 was a congressional election year? In other words, to use Gen. Milley’s words, if that’s the way you want to describe it, the military was massively involved in domestic politics back there on July 4, 1986.
Make no mistake, Gen. Milley’s statement is itself the very epitome of politics. The politics of Inside the Beltway insiders who cannot abide the elected president of the United States.
Gen. Milley’s words summon in turn the words of former President Harry Truman in his memoirs when he recounted his famous decision to fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the middle of the Korean War. Truman wrote that MacArthur, in issuing a Milley-style statement on his own that challenged the president, had made a
most extraordinary statement for a military commander … on his own responsibility.… It was in open defiance of my orders as President and as Commander in Chief. This was a challenge to the authority of the President under the Constitution.
Then the 33rd president went on to say,
If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military. Policies are to be made by the elected political officials, not by generals or admirals.…
One reason that we have been so careful to keep the military within its own preserve is that the very nature of the service hierarchy gives military commanders little if any opportunity to learn the humility that is needed for good public service.
Clearly, Gen. Milley’s statement comes perilously close to doing exactly what Truman charged of MacArthur: issuing “a challenge to the authority of the President under the Constitution.”
This is flatly unacceptable, not to mention seriously wrong.
To be clear, Gen. Milley is perfectly within his rights to disagree with the president — behind closed doors. But the moment he takes his disagreement and goes public on his own authority, as Truman said of MacArthur, this is “open defiance” of a president’s orders.
What is notable, in sum, is that on two separate occasions Gen. Milley has openly challenged the Constitution.
First by criticizing the president for standing up for religious liberty — as enshrined in the Constitution — with the presidential visit to a church burned quite deliberately by “protesters” who were in fact would-be arsonists.
Second is the general’s open public statement that is effectively issued, in Truman’s phrase, in “open defiance” of his president and commander-in-chief.
To which, the answer to Gen. Milley is the obvious one. If the general can’t obey the Constitution — he should resign.