WASHINGTON, DC – In his two years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley has been the subject of more political intrigue and discussion than any of his recent predecessors. Firestorms have erupted one after another around him, which is uncommon for an official who, by law, is a presidential whisperer and, by habit, stays above the fight.
Milley has been embroiled in politically contentious topics ranging from racial injustice and domestic extremism to nuclear weapons and Donald Trump’s eligibility as commander in chief, often propelling him into the national headlines.
Milley is likely to face harsh questions on those and other topics when he appears with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin before a Senate committee on Tuesday and a House committee on Wednesday. The hearings were supposed to be about the Afghan pullout and the botched evacuation of Kabul airport last month.
But, since then, Republicans have chastised Milley for portraying himself in a new book as having taken unprecedented — and some say illegal — efforts to prevent Trump from launching a war with China or Iran or ordering an unprovoked nuclear attack in the closing months of his administration. Milley is said to have concurred with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement that Trump is “crazy” in a January phone chat.
Even during Milley’s recent trip to Europe, headlines followed him and reporters interrogated him. He mostly brushed off queries or buried them in a mountain of historical precedent.
Milley is burly and square-jawed, with a bushy slash of brows over sometimes impish eyes, and quick with a joke and a curse. Milley, who was born in a Boston suburb and has Irish ancestors, has a big personality that masks a sharp mind and a passion for military history. Milley, a Princeton graduate, frequently responds to simple queries by delving into history, which may take him all the way back to the Greeks, cover large swaths of both world wars, and expand on the background and principles of conflict.
Milley clung to his identification as a soldier who reports to civilian authorities while he faced charges of treachery for what the book “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, described as pledges to a Chinese general that he would warn him of a US assault. He declined to make his case to the press, instead assuring reporters that he will provide his explanations to Congress directly. His only brief comments were that the calls with the Chinese were normal and that they were part of his work duties and obligations.
“I believe it is better that I keep my views off the record until I get the opportunity to do so in front of the politicians who have the legal authority to govern the United States military,” Milley said. “I will go into any degree of detail that Congress desires.”
While some in Congress have accused him of abusing his power, President Joe Biden has defended him.
Milley, says Loren Thompson, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Lexington Institute and a veteran observer of the US defence establishment, is a victim of Washington’s intense partisanship and maybe his own efforts to mould his public image.
“His opinions and depictions of his behind-closed-doors behaviour appear much too frequently in tell-all novels like Woodward and Costa’s, “Thompson said. “Milley may have taken a more active approach to attempt to build his image, and it hasn’t worked out well for him.”
Milley’s controversies haven’t always been about Trump. Milley defended the military’s openness to allowing young officers to study ideas they might not agree with, such as “critical race theory,” at a House hearing in June, saying he wanted to understand “white rage” and the motivations of those who participated in the Jan. 6 riot at the United States Capitol.
Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are known for keeping a low public presence. Milley is the first of the 19 to be dismissed, and it does not appear that he will be the last. Only Marine Gen. Peter Pace served less than four years as chair when the George W. Bush administration declined to re-appoint him for a second two-year term, citing the divisiveness of his role in the Iraq war.
The chairmanship was established in 1949 to advise the president and the defence secretary. The chairman is not allowed to order soldiers by law. During the United States’ two-decade wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the job has increased in public importance.
Milley served in both wars as a commander of troops. Those conflicts, in which he lost a large number of soldiers, paved the way for his rise from armour officer to Army chief of staff 35 years later.
On September 30, 2019, he took over as chairman with an unexpected twist.
Milley was Trump’s pick to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as chairman nearly a year before he was sworn in and only days before James Mattis left as defence secretary. The move came at an extremely early point in Dunford’s tenure, and it might have had as much to do with Trump’s animosity for Mattis as it did with his view that Milley was the appropriate person for the position.
That’s how Trump said it when he slammed Milley this summer after reports that Milley had worried Trump might employ the military in a coup last year. Trump claimed he chose him as chairman in order to annoy Mattis, whom he believes dislikes Milley. Mattis, not Milley, had nominated the Air Force’s top general for the post.
Milley’s outgoing personality may have first attracted Trump, but he quickly grew dissatisfied with him. Milley privately rejected Trump’s idea of invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops to the streets of Washington to quell protests triggered by the police shooting of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis in June 2020.
Milley also voiced public sorrow for walking across Lafayette Square with Trump’s entourage on June 1, 2020, to be positioned near a church where Trump held out a Bible for cameras. Milley has been chastised for appearing to be a political pawn. Milley subsequently admitted that he had made a blunder. In the months that followed, he appeared to be on the verge of being fired by Trump.
Milley expressed relief to former first lady Michelle Obama on the day President Joe Biden was sworn in, according to Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker in their book “I Alone Can Fix It.”
Milley remarked, “No one has a greater smile today than I do.”