President Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church in June. Walking behind Trump from left are, Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

President Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church in June. Walking behind Trump from left are, Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Patrick Semansky/AP

Milley Speaks Out — and Trump Stays Mum

After a controversial summer, the Joint Chiefs chairman is holding his own with a string of public pronouncements.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is speaking his mind. 

In June, he publicly apologized for taking part in President Trump’s controversial walk across Lafayette Square after police had used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear protesters from the area. In July, he slammed the Confederacy as “treason,” even as Trump was embracing symbols of the failed secessionist movement. And then in an interview with NPR on Sunday, he cast doubt on announcements by Trump and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien that the United States was severely cutting its troops in Afghanistan in the coming months, saying that “Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit.”

By any measure, it’s a remarkable string of public pronouncements in an administration not known to brook dissent from senior officials. And yet, multiple White House officials told Defense One they have heard no hint of any grumbling from the Oval Office about Milley — and the president, known for airing his feelings about his own officials on Twitter, has given no public hint of dissatisfaction. If there is a single member of Trump’s administration who seems to be able to get away with contradicting the president, it’s the blunt-talking Princeton graduate Trump selected over the apparent front-runner to be his top military advisor.

Milley has also been perhaps the most clear-spoken defense official in the Pentagon’s efforts to steer clear of the toxic partisan politics surrounding the 2020 election. As fears have grown that there will be civil unrest on or after election day, Milley has sought to articulate the limitations of any role the military might play in quelling it. Those full-throated replies have earned the approval of even Democratic members of Congress. 

At the same time, Milley has continued to receive criticism for actions that his critics say show a uniformed officer inappropriately involved in White House politics — a sacred line in a democracy that values civilian control of the military. One recently retired officer who spoke to Defense One accused Milley of operating as a de facto defense secretary, rather than purely as a military advisor, as the chairman is supposed to be. Last week, he issued a public apology for a quip about Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who was one of the key architects of Trump’s impeachment and remains a frequent target of the right. And he drew fire again this week for appearing in a photo used in a Trump campaign ad. A defense official has claimed that campaign officials used the photo without his knowledge.

The result is that Milley’s handling of the role — and his relationship to the president he advises — has become a Rorschach test in Washington. Current and former officials familiar with Milley have wildly different explanations for his sudden appearance in the public sphere over the last five months. Some see a chairman growing into his role after a year on the job, others a man pulled between his responsibility to his institution and the Constitution and his responsibility to a volatile president. Still others see a man struggling to safeguard his legacy — or keep his job if Trump loses in November.

“I feel that he is right now grappling with his role as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the highest-ranking member of our military in uniform, and his role and responsibility to the Constitution and the protection of our troops,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot.

Mike Taheri, who retired as a two-star from the National Guard Bureau in August and who attended multiple Pentagon meetings surrounding the June unrest, suggested that Milley was chastened by the outcry that followed his participation in the Lafayette Square walk, which the chairman has since called a mistake. “I should not have been there,” the general said in a commencement address to the National Defense University. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

Because the National Guard did not have a confirmed vice chief in June, Taheri, the director of staff, often filled in for the chief in meetings that would normally have been attended by a confirmed vice chief. He cautioned that he did not interact with Milley often, but observed him closely in meetings. 

“My impression was he definitely went a little more quiet after that. Before June 1, he was really large and in charge. He seemed like he was steam-rolling over everything. ‘We’re going to direct this and direct that.’ And then he got a little quieter,” Taheri said. “I think he’s very mindful of his legacy.”

A former defense official said the Lafayette Square incident was a mistake Milley won’t make again — but that person and a current official pushed back on the notion that the Army general has sought to burnish his legacy in the months since. Straight talk, these people said, is just who Milley is.

“He knows what is right according to the law, he knows what is right according to his decades-long experience,” the current defense official said. “He’s driven from his core belief that the military should be an American institution that protects the American people and not the other way around.”

Milley isn’t “claiming anything back,” said the former defense official. “I think he’s realizing and kind of growing into the role of the Chairman.” That person pointed out Milley’s history of challenging his bosses, in particular as a one-star general in Afghanistan, where he is credited with pushing Pentagon leaders to implement policy and funding to ensure wounded troops could be medevaced to a hospital within 60 minutes of an injury.

There isn’t any kind of coordinated agenda behind his recent string of eyebrow-raising statements, the defense official said — and certainly not one aimed at convincing a potential Biden administration to keep him in the chairman’s post. 

“I’ve never heard him say anything like that,” the official said. “He just doesn’t work like that.”

More concerning, Taheri said, was the degree to which he saw Milley upstaging Trump’s beleaguered defense secretary, Mark Esper, whom the president has publicly derided as “Yesper” and who is not expected to keep his job if Trump wins a second term. “Usually best military advice from the chairman channels one direction,” Taheri said. But he said he frequently noted it would be Milley, not Esper, who would return from the White House and say, “I just came from the president's office and this is what we’re doing.”

“Prior chairmen have tended to be more careful about that,” Taheri said. Even though the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff commands no forces, “he exerts a lot of moral authority in the building,” Taheri said. “It started happening because the chairman said ‘make it so’. It kind of cuts out...that safety layer of civilian oversight of the military.”

Milley has long been seen as a uniformed officer able to operate successfully in a political environment without becoming political or partisan, his allies say. A larger-than-life personality, the general is known both for his tough talk and his intellect. He is famous for his grasp of history and for digging into the minutiae of briefing materials with such gusto that his staff stopped giving him the supplementary detail usually included in briefing books — just to help keep meetings on schedule.

His rapport with the “winning”-obsessed Trump has long been clear. In December 2018, the president unexpectedly tapped him to replace former chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, months ahead of when that announcement would typically be made. And Milley leap-frogged Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, widely considered to be the leading candidate for the post.

Trump’s national security advisor O’Brien fired back at Milley’s apparent suggestion that he was only “speculating” about troop levels in Afghanistan. “Other people can interpret what I say as speculation, but...when I'm speaking, I'm speaking for the president,” he said at an Aspen Institute event on Friday. Trump has not addressed it. The defense official said that the quote had been misinterpreted. Milley was responding to a direct question about O’Brien and his intention was to say that he was not going to publicly discuss the matter, that person said.

In the end, the scrutiny may be unavoidable, multiple current and former officials said. 

“It’s the most volatile political administration in American history and for a military officer, it’s kind of getting your sea legs,” the former defense official said. “It is a completely different environment being chairman. Nobody cares who the [chief of naval operations] is, but the chairman? That’s the job.”