Retired Adm. William McRaven said there is “nothing morally right” about clearing peaceful protesters amid national unrest following George Floyd’s death in police custody.
“Trust me, every man and woman in uniform recognizes that we are all Americans and that the last thing they want to do as military men and women is to stand in the way of a peaceful protest,” McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, said in an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday.
“You’re not going to use, whether it’s the military, or the National Guard, or law enforcement, to clear peaceful American citizens for the president of the United States to do a photo op,” McRaven said. “There is nothing morally right about that.”
McRaven’s comments come as the Trump administration has taken heat after federal troops forcefully cleared protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. so President Donald Trump could visit St. John’s church for a photo with a Bible on Monday.
The United States Park Police denied that they used tear gas and instead, claimed that they used “smoke canisters” and “pepper balls” after protesters “became more combative.”
Although pepper balls have different ingredients than tear gas, both are designed to irritate the eyes and respiratory systems and the CDC designates both of them as "riot control agents.” Media on the scene also reported witnessing only peaceful behavior from protesters.
The Secret Service and the National Guard have not weighed in on the situation.
The protests are in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man prosecutors say was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.
“When you are in the military, there are three criteria for every decision we make: it has to be moral, legal and ethical,” McRaven said. “Ethical, you have to follow the rules, legal you have to follow the law, and then moral you have to follow what you know to be right. And either way, that’s just not right.”
McRaven also backed other retired military leaders who have voiced criticism of Trump this week. Those military leaders include former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who criticized Trump’s leadership and took issue with his response to peaceful protesters. Hopefully, these statements will provide some “sanity” as the U.S. navigates moving forward, McRaven said.
“I was very pleased to see Jim Mattis, and obviously Adm. Mike Mullen, and today John Kelly come out and reinforce what we know to be the principles of the U.S. military,” McRaven said. “We all raise our right hand and swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States, it is not to the president of the United States, it is to the Constitution.”
“Again, great to see the voices being raised and a little bit of hopefully, sanity coming back to this very, very tragic situation,” McRaven said.
On Wednesday, Mattis released a statement to The Atlantic claiming Trump is the first “president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.”
“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mattis wrote.
Likewise, Mullen said the sight of protesters being cleared in Lafayette Square “sickened” him, and said it displayed Trump’s “disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country.”
Although McRaven said he isn’t worried about the Trump administration tarnishing the military, he said military leaders will constantly reassess how it is handling inequality.
“I am not concerned, honestly, about the future of the military because again, the military believes in following the Constitution...but we will constantly reassess,” McRaven said. “This is part of the process.”
This isn’t the first time McRaven has been critical of Trump. In October, McRaven wrote an op-ed published in the New York Times and asserted a new president was needed if Trump couldn’t step up and deliver the leadership America needs.
“If this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office — Republican, Democrat or independent — the sooner, the better,” McRaven wrote. “The fate of our Republic depends upon it.”
McRaven led Joint Special Operations Command before becoming the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command in 2011. He retired in 2014.