As the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley is known to be tough and highly respected. He was reportedly handpicked by President Donald Trump because of his “tough” figure and outspoken style.
Under the American Constitution, the President – not the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – is the commander-in-chief of the American military. And since early 2019, Milley – who studied at Princeton University – has signaled strongly that his primary responsibility is to protect and defend the Constitution and not to a controversial president.
Officials close to Milley told VOA that the general’s focus on America’s allies and competitors is achieving “strategic stability” while de-escalating tensions.
However, Milley’s attempts to remain apolitical is sometimes interpreted by his detractors as politicizing his position. The figure who says he wants to keep the military away from politics has repeatedly been the center of political debate and controversy.
In June 2020 Milley apologized for walking with Trump across Lafayette Square, where demonstrators protested the death of African American George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
Riot police and National Guard troops forcibly evicted demonstrators from the park in front of the White House before Trump crossed the square with several members of his cabinet and General Milley. President Trump was standing in front of a historic church posing with a Bible in his hand.
“I shouldn’t have been there,” Milley said in a speech to National Defense University students.
Shortly after the incident, a senior defense official told reporters that neither Milley nor the then Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, intended to take part in the photo shoot. They thought they were just walking outside to see the troops on duty in front of the park.
In the final days of Trump’s presidency, Milley also delivered a message to the military. He denounced the January 6 attack on the Houses of Congress by Trump supporters who wanted to undo the process of ratifying Biden’s election victory.
“The violent riots in Washington DC on January 6, 2021 were a direct attack on the American Congress, the House of Congress and our constitutional process,” Milley and other chiefs of staff said in a memo.
He added, “We are witnessing actions inside the Houses of Congress that are inconsistent with the rule of law. The right to freedom of expression and assembly does not give anyone the right to use violence, incitement and rebellion.”
In private, Milley reportedly blamed Trump for his remarks that sparked the riots, likening the circumstances surrounding Nazi-era elections in Germany. “This is the time of the Reichstag,” Milley told someone, referring to the 1933 attack on the German parliament; that’s an excerpt from a book entitled “Peril” written by two Washington Post journalists – Carol D. Leonnig and Phillip Rucker.
Experts have once again claimed Milley has damaged the relationship between the civilian and military leadership.
“The general’s actions have set an important civil-military precedent, and that trust needs to be repaired,” said retired Army Colonel Jeff McCausland, a former member of the National Security Council, who this week wrote an essay on NBC News. “But it also reveals the lasting impact of a president desperate to stay in office,” he added.
The criticism mainly focused on two telephone conversations Milley had with the Chinese general, Li Zuocheng. According to the book, in the first telephone call on October 30, 2020, Milley is reported to have informed Li that he would contact him in the event of a nuclear attack by America in the near future.
Milley called a second time after the January 6 attacks to try to reassure China that America remained stable, in which Milley reportedly told Li that “democracy is sloppy at times.”
In addition to the two calls with his Chinese counterpart, Milley reportedly held secret meetings with senior American military leaders at the Pentagon after Trump refused to accept the results of the presidential election. Still according to the book “Peril,” during the meeting Milley reminded officials of nuclear weapons launch procedures and tried to ensure that nuclear launch control officers would notify him if the order was issued.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio and retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman have called for Milley’s resignation following the revelations of the events. Rubio said the general was trying to “actively undermine” Trump.
Milley last Friday (18/9) said his conversation with Li over the phone was “absolutely part of his duties and responsibilities.”
Regarding the meeting on nuclear weapons procedures, Milley’s spokesman Colonel Dave Butler said it was “to remind military officials at the Pentagon of robust and long-standing procedures regarding media reports about it.”
Shortly after the events unfolded in the book “Peril,” President Joe Biden expressed his support for Milley, saying he had “great faith” in the general. [em/ka]