Return to Transcripts main page


Joint Chiefs Chairman Apologizes For Role In Trump Church Photo Op That Began With Brutality Against Peaceful Protesters, Journalists; Senate Panel Votes To Remove Confederate Names From Military Bases. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 11, 2020 - 10:00   ET


POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: And the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special.


Top of the hour, and we do have significant breaking news. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


This is significant. The Joint Chiefs chairman, top military adviser to the president, has apologized this morning for appearing with President Trump in combat uniform. You'll remember this image here as the president walked across Lafayette Square. Of course, protesters cleared with tear gas, a police march for a photo shop at a church across from the White House.

Notable words, a notable public disagreement between General Milley there on right and President Trump there on the left.

HARLOW: Let's go straight to our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. Also joining us for analysis is retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Barbara, the words from General Milley, I should not have been there, so significant and so strikingly different than the president's stance.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is, and here is the reason General Mark Milley is saying this. Because as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he really is the guardian of ensuring that the United States military remains apolitical, non-partisan, regardless of who is the president of the United States and that the U.S. military fundamentally has a good relationship with the American people, that the U.S. military does not take to the streets against American citizens peacefully protesting. That's the undercurrent here. That's why this is happening.

General Milley has pre-recorded a video message to graduating military students. The message was embargoed. The New York Times went ahead with that in advance of the embargo, so now we want to bring the same information, of course, to all of our viewers. And in that message, Milley is going to say, and let me quote, 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. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.

This is a four-star general with decades of command. He is basically saying, I made a mistake. I shouldn't have been there. He's owning it. He was seen in these photographs walking across Lafayette Square. Importantly he was in no published photographs once they got to St. John's Episcopal Church and the president held up the bible.

Now, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was pulled into the side of that and Esper also has said he tries hard to stay out of political events, doesn't always succeed.

But for General Milley, it is a crucial point. Because, again, the guardian of the notion that the United States military serves the American people, does not serve political causes. The United States military does not take to the streets against peaceful protesters.

Milley and Esper had been adamant last week last week against any notion that active duty troops had to be activated and put on the troops at that time. They felt the National Guard and that law enforcement could handle it and did handle it.

You are seeing visible, a very serious strain here perhaps between the Pentagon and the White House, but you are seeing both of the top leaders here at this point deciding that they will say what they think.

SCIUTTO: Rear Admiral John Kirby, you, of course, served as spokesman in the Pentagon, served yourself for many years in the Navy. Notable, is it not, that this disagreement is public but also it's not alone? This is the military, well, for instance, the defense secretary defied the president on the deployment of U.S. forces to respond to the protests. You also have disagreement now on renaming bases named after confederate generals. Again, difference between the military and the president, and now this here.

How significant is that gap and the fact that that gap is now very public? It's not a quiet discussion in the situation room. It is happening out before our eyes here.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: No, it's very significant, Jim, and you have to put it in the context of everything else going on. We're not just having a very serious conversation about race relations in this country. But as a result of this administration's reaction to those protests that are based on race relations, we're having a very serious conversation now about civil military relations and the proper role of the military in supporting domestic law enforcement. And in that context all of this has now happened, and it has broken out in the public. And I think, in general, it's a good thing for us all be discussing what's the proper role of the military in society, where does the military fit in the institutional relationships across the interagency.


But it is very unusual that you see these many top level former and now active duty officers being so forthcoming about their concerns. I can't remember a time when it's broken open at so high a level and so publicly.

HARLOW: To that point, Barbara, could you speak to just historically where this falls in terms of sort of being one of the deepest civil military divides? Do you agree with those that would say this is the greatest that we've seen since the Vietnam War?

As Jim just laid out a few minute ago, it's not just this and it's not just what Esper said a few days ago. It's also the president saying, I'm not even going to think about renaming any of these bases named after confederate generals. There's much more here that is adding to the divide.

STARR: I think that there is. Because on this question of renaming bases named after confederate generals, you had Milley and Esper, again, the two top officials at the Pentagon, come out in favor, in support of having at least a bipartisan conversation. They didn't publicly say it, but they thought it be known through their spokesman, so there's really no question here. They were in favor of having a bipartisan national conversation, something that Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy in charge of all of this, a political appointee himself, had wanted to begin.

The army had even been looking at names of people they might have pointed to a blue ribbon commission to even begin the discussion. The president smacking all of that down. There will be no discussion, he said. His tweets even saying, respect the military, perhaps failing to understand that it was his own military suggesting this.

What we have seen in the last two weeks here is top leadership on several levels moving ahead of the White House, not waiting for the president to make up his mind about whether he's going to speak to the nation about racial equality.

All of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have now issued messages to their troops. The Marine Corps and the Navy are banning any confederate symbols from their bases. They are issuing statements about racial equality. The new incoming chief of staff of the Air Force, a very passionate statement about this, command sergeant major of the Army talking about his struggles growing up bi-racial.

You are seeing them move out smartly and move ahead, and they are very savvy. They are not partisan, but they have very fine-tuned political antenna about the nation. They know where the national conversation is. And when they issued these messages to their own troops, they know they are speaking to the nation even if the White House is not. SCIUTTO: Admiral Kirby, I've had military officials say to me a number of times when there have been issues of disagreement or discomfort in the Pentagon with the president's decision, that military leaders have struggled to figure out which hill to die on, in the words of this person there and often choosing, well, this is not the hill to die on. It just strikes me when you see three hills here, and I don't know if that dies too in a forward (ph) expression, but you know what I'm saying here, willing to contradict the president.

I know you stay in touch with people inside that five-sided building. Is it your sense that senior military officials that their patience with this president has run thin, that they have reached the limits of what they are willing to accept?

KIRBY: No, Jim. Actually, I don't think they have -- that the patience has run thin or they have reached some sort of limits with respect to the president. But I think two things are going on here. One, they recognize, as Barbara rightly pointed out, they recognize the moment that we're in right now, that there is something different about June of 2020 in terms of where the nation is going with respect to how we treat one another, and they run -- these four stars run very diverse forces.

They are made up of Americans of all stripes and sizes and colors and ethnicities, and they have to to observe that. They have to recognize that. They have to reward that. They have to understand that, because they recruit and retain all these individuals.

The other thing I would say is that I believe that they believe. They would be derelict in their duty if they didn't speak out about this. I don't see this as a protest to Donald Trump. I think they believe that they have to speak out on these issues because they run diverse forces and because they know where the country is and where the country is going, and the youth that they want to recruit and keep in uniform going forward.

So for them, I don't think this is a political statement at all or any statement of impatience with Trump. I think it's really about the fact that who they are, the forces that they are organizing and where they believe this country is going and that they have a sincere desire to represent the country as best they can.

SCIUTTO: Well, it will be interesting to know what the reaction inside the White House is to those public dismissals, frankly, of the president's position.


Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, retired rear Admiral John Kirby, thanks very much to both of you,

So let's get to the White House. John Harwood, john, the president has to be aware of Milley's comments. We know he heard Secretary Esper's comments last week, and apparently nearly wanted to fire him for that disagreement. Any reaction yet from the White House? JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I haven't seen any on his Twitter feed from the moment I put my phone down to look into the camera. But, look, it is plain that the president of the United States is increasingly isolated not only from the majority of the American people, not only from an overwhelming majority of non-white Americans seeking racial justice but also from the members of the U.S. -- the leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces.

And I think John Kirby just made a vital point. It's not just about civilian military relations. It is linked, inexorably intertwined with the questions of racial justice.

The U.S. Armed Forces are one of the most successfully integrated, racially integrated elements of American society. Blacks are 13 percent of the American population. They are 21 percent of the active duty members of the U.S. Army. So the U.S. Army leaders are speaking out for their people as well as for the role of the military.

Now, as for the president, we know that he's going to Dallas today to appear at a white evangelical church. That's a political safe space for him. Evangelicals are core supporters. We don't know what his aides are going to goad him to say that he'll accept either in legislation or in executive order, but we know where his heart, is and his heart is in escalating racial divisions. That's been his political history.

We know that the president has this morning tweeted that -- a taunt, really, at those protesters who federal forced tear gas and rubber bullets on last week. He said it was a walk in the park to handle those protesters last week.

We also can see the same pattern in the scheduling of his first rally for his re-election campaign next Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was a racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma a century ago. Moreover it occurs on June the 19th. Juneteenth is a day in which African-Americans commemorate their emancipation from slavery.

Now, was that the president's purpose in scheduling this in Tulsa on that day? Obviously, we can't say from the outside, but it's certainly is consistent with the pattern of a president who is dependent on racial conflict for his political success and shows no sign in turning in a different direction.

HARLOW: Yes. John Harwood, we're going to talk a lot more about the Tulsa rally and the significance of that date and what the White House is saying ahead. Thank you so much.

SCIUTTO: And we're going to stay on top of the breaking news here this morning. The stunning statement, a break, a very public break between the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and the president. Please stay with us.

HARLOW: We are also following a very alarming key projection on a coronavirus model followed very closely by the White House. Researchers suggesting a second wave and nearly 60,000 more deaths by the fall. We'll be right back with that. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


HARLOW: This morning, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee is making a potential move to erase the names of confederate generals from military assets across the country, and, Jim, it's a really big deal because the president says, we're not going to even discuss that.

SCIUTTO: A rare disagreement between Republican senators and the Republican President. Let's bring in CNN's Manu Raju.

Manu, this amendment brought forward interestingly by Senator Elizabeth Warren, I believe here, majority of Republicans on this committee, how notable is this, and do we have a sense of how close that voice was? I suppose it was a voice vote in committee.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It happened behind closed doors so we don't have all the details other than what we're gleaning from our sources.

Now, this committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, is led by Republicans, but there's a one-vote margin, so any one Republican could flip and join the Democrats to adopt this, but they did it by voice vote, so there's no official tally. So we'll have to ask individual members how they'd ultimately came down.

Now, this amendment by Elizabeth Warren would essentially create a process that, within three years, would require the Pentagon to remove the names of confederate generals including military assets. It includes bases, it includes facilities, equipments, weapons, you name it. And an independent commission will be set up to review all of the confederate generals' names that are out there and then they would have to move forward with that process.

Now, this amendment was added to the annual defense authorization bill, which sets policy for the Pentagon. That is a big, very popular bipartisan measure that is approved by Congress every single year.

So the president and the White House threatened to veto yesterday any legislation that would remove the names of confederate generals from military bases. The question ultimately is will this ultimately survive the final steps of the legislative process. Will this land on president's desk? Will the president carry through with that veto threat? But as you can see, at least some bipartisan support for removing those names of the confederate generals even as the president contends that this is American heritage and should stay on military bases. Guys?

HARLOW: Yes. It's really significant. Manu, thank you for that.

Let's talk about all of this with our Dana Bash and Abby Philip. Good morning, ladies.

Dana, let's just begin with you on this divide we just talked to Barbara Starr and Admiral Kirby about.


This is not just about General Milley saying, I should not have been there for the photo-op, which is huge. It's about the series of divides between top military brass and the president.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, and I'm just looking down at my phone, because the president in the last few minutes sent a tweet not about Milley specifically, just in all caps, saying, those that deny their history are doomed to repeat it.

You know, there are a lot of ways that you can interpret that. It seems to me the way that he intended it was a defense of his insistence that the -- that these bases not have their names changed.

But, you know, more broadly, this is exactly what we have seen from this president for the past three and a half years. He has never gone beyond his base strategy. He's always felt that that this is the right thing to do politically. And, frankly, it's who he is, it's his natural instinct.

But on the issue of the military, what strikes me is that he is a disrupter. He has tried to smash open institution after institution by dividing them, and the military is just the latest. And that divide that already existed was between some in, you know, the officer class and some in the rank and file, and that is something that he is trying to -- a wedge that already existed a bit and he is trying to drill down on in an intense way because he thinks it benefits him.

SCIUTTO: Abby Philip, I wonder here, beyond the public disagreement between the military and the president, you have a Republican-led committee here defying the president on an issue he's been very public about, renaming those bases named after confederate generals, being willing to go against the president here, and when you couple that with, for instance, Republican efforts now looking at police reform but also the DOD differences with the president, are you noticing in your reporting a willingness to defy President Trump more, and do you see a connection there between the president's dwindling popularity?

Politics is politics, politicians are politicians. They watch polls. They have been scared into not contesting this president in the past based on his popularity. Do they see a weakness there, I wonder?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think it's a really good question and I don't know that we totally know the answer to this just yet because it's moving so fast. Public opinion has shifted show dramatically just in a couple of weeks that a lot of this is happening and public opinion is shifting as it's happening.

So lawmakers are trying to navigate these waters really with very little in the way of a compass. I think that their willingness to have the conversation is a sign that they are nervous about the politics of this.

The evidence that we do have so far is that the president is not getting high marks from the public about how he is handling this. But I do have a lot of questions about how far Republicans are actually willing to go.

I mean, it is one thing to allow a vote on a measure to even -- to vote in favor of it knowing that it might be vetoed down the road, and it's another thing for Republicans to say overwhelmingly this is what we believe we ought to do even if the president doesn't want it. I think we just haven't gotten to that point yet.

And I think we're seeing in the police reform a movement on the Republican side, a willingness to open the conversation, but I think that the weakness of some of the proposals that they have put on the table suggests that there is a limit to how far they are actually going to be willing to go in defying this president.

And, yes, a lot of them are looking down the road at re-election this year and in two years, and I think they recognize, especially in the Senate, they have to represent their entire states.

Many of these people actually come from very diverse states, and they have to at least show a willingness to acknowledge the opinions of a diverse electorate in their home states and home towns.

HARLOW: The president is going to start holding rallies again, and he has chosen Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dana, to hold his first sort of comeback rally, if you will, and it's on June 19th, which is a very significant day, Juneteenth, marking the emancipation from slavery. And Senator Kamala Harris says this is not just a wink to white supremacists, this is a welcome home -- he's throwing them a welcome home party. The White House says, no, we're going to have a meaningful conversation about this at the rally.

We cannot forgot 99 years ago in Tulsa and what happened there.

BASH: That's right. Juneteenth is a day that African-Americans and others, beyond African-Americans, have long celebrated as kind of the unofficial end to slavery after the emancipation proclamation.


But the fact is that Tulsa there is a different history. There was some devastation almost 100 years ago on that day, and this is -- I mean, just as we're talking, texting with the Trump official who is echoing what Kayleigh McEnany insisted at the White House, that this is a day that they are -- that the president is going to go and he is going to talk about how much he is going to do for African-Americans and celebrate that day for African-Americans. But it is going to be very, very hard to hear him do that given what we have seen happen both at the White House and what his message is right now with even just the bases.

SCIUTTO: Abby Philip, before we go. as aggressive as the president will be on many positions, disagreements even when he has disagreement in his own party or Defense Department -- actually, hold on for a moment, Abby, because we now have actual audio of General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making this statement to U.S. service members around the world. Let's have a listen because his words are remarkable.


GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOIN CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: Let me conclude with two simple pieces of advice based on 40 years in uniform that you may find useful as many of you will surely go on to become flag officers (ph).

First, always maintain a keen sense of situational awareness. As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched, 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. 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.

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.


SCIUTTO: Those are quite strong words, very different from the president's, Abby. And my question is this. Yes, the president is often aggressive. But when the president doesn't believe he has the political backing to do something, he will back down, and we've seen that before.

I just wonder, in light of these very public disagreements, and there are more than one of them with the military, does he back down here?

PHILLIP: You know, I don't know. I think Esper also broke with the president on this, and, frankly, we just haven't seen him react at all. And maybe in not reacting, he is backing down. But this is a dangerous territory for President Trump in a lot of ways because what the the military brass are saying is that the hallmark of this democracy is an apolitical military.

That is what separates us from other countries where the military is perceived to be aligned with particular regimes or opposed to particular regimes. And preserving that is beyond loyalty to this president, which is typically something that he likes to see from people who work for him. Maybe we might see him backing down.

I think it seems like their strategy has been silence, and, frankly, that's probably as good as it's going to get. And I think that even for some of the president's aides, they might be satisfied with him just simply not weighing in for the time being on this matter and just letting military brass do what they have to do, which is say that they are committed to preserving that institution.

SCIUTTO: Well, we'll see if he holds his tongue when he goes to these rallies. As we know, he can often go off the cuff there. Dana Bash and Abby Philip, thanks to both of you. More than a dozen states are now seeing a spike in new coronavirus cases, this as a new forecast shows a potential second wave of coronavirus this fall. We're going to have more on that, next.