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ROBERT BURNS and LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON (AP) — Gen. Mark Milley has been the tar- get of more political intrigue and debate in two years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff than any of his recent predecessors were in four. One after another, firestorms have ignited around him — unusual for an officer who by law is a whisperer to presidents and by custom is careful to stay above the fray.
From racial injustice and domestic extremism to nuclear weapons and the fitness of Donald Trump as commander in chief, Milley has become entangled in politically charged issues, regularly thrusting him into the news headlines.
Milley is expected to face tough questioning on those and other issues when he tes- tifies with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a Senate hear- ing Tuesday and a House panel Wednesday. The hearings orig- inally were meant to focus on the Afghanistan withdrawal and the chaotic evacuation from Kabul airport last month.
But since then, Milley has come under fire from Republicans for his portrayal in a new book as having taken unusual — some say illegal — steps to guard against Trump potentially starting a war with China or Iran or ordering an unprovoked nuclear attack in the final months of his presi- dency. Milley was reported to have agreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s asser- tion in a January phone call that Trump was “crazy.”
Even during Milley’s swing through Europe last week, headlines dogged him and reporters quizzed him. Mostly he batted questions away or buried them in detailed historical precedent.
Burly and square-jawed, with a bushy slash of eyebrows over often mischievous eyes, Milley is quick with a quip and frequently a curse. His over- size personality, born of Irish roots in Boston, belies a sharp intellect and a pen- chant for digging deep into military history. The Princeton-educated Milley often meets simple questions with a deep dive into history that can reach as far back as the Greeks, cover long stretches of both world wars, and expound upon the con- text and concepts of war.
So as he faced accusations of disloyalty for what the book “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, reported as assurances to a Chinese general that he would warn him of a U.S. attack, Milley gripped his identity as a soldier who answers to civilian leaders. He declined to make his case in the media, instead telling reporters that he will lay out his answers directly to Congress. His only brief comments have been that the calls with the Chinese were routine and within the duties and responsibilities of his job.
“I think it’s best that I reserve my comments on the record until I do that in front of the lawmakers who have the lawful responsibility to oversee the U.S. military,” Milley said. “I’ll go into any level of detail Congress wants to go into.”
While some in Congress have charged that he over- stepped his authority, President Joe Biden has stood by him.
Loren Thompson, a long- time observer of the U.S. defense establishment as chief operating officer of the nonprofit Lexington
Institute, says Milley is a vic- tim of Washington’s extreme partisanship and perhaps of his own efforts to shape his public image.
“His views and descrip- tions of his behavior behind closed doors, pop up too fre- quently in tell-all books like the Woodward and Costa book,” Thompson said. “So perhaps Milley has taken a more active approach to try- ing to shape his image, and that has not served him well.”
Not all of Milley’s contro- versies have been related to Trump. At a House hearing in June, Milley passionately defended the military’s open- ness to allowing young offi- cers to study ideas they might not agree with, such as “critical race theory,” and he said he wanted to under- stand “white rage” and the motivations of those who participated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Joint Chiefs chairmen tra- ditionally keep a low public profile. Of the 19 who pre- ceded Milley, none was fired, nor does it appear he will be. Among recent chairmen, only Marine Gen. Peter Pace served fewer than four years when the George W. Bush administration did not tap him for another two-year term, citing the divisiveness of his association with the Iraq war.
Created in 1949, the job of chairman is to advise the president and the defense secretary. By law, the chair- man commands no troops. The role has grown in public prominence during the two decades of U.S. warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Milley commanded troops during tours in both wars. Those battles, where he lost many soldiers, helped chart his path as he rose from an armor officer in 1980 to Army chief of staff 35 years later.
His move into the chair- man’s office on Sept. 30, 2019, came with an unusual twist.
Nearly a year before he was sworn in and just days before James Mattis resigned as defense secretary, Trump announced that Milley was his choice to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as chair- man. The timing was unusu- ally early in Dunford’s tenure, and it may have had as much to do with Trump’s antagonism toward Mattis as his belief that Milley was right for the job.
That’s how Trump described it when he lashed out at Milley this summer following reports that Milley had feared last year that
Trump might use the mili- tary in a coup. Trump said he picked him as chairman to spite Mattis, who he believed didn’t like Milley. In fact, Mattis had recommend- ed the Air Force’s top gener- al for the job, not Milley.
Milley’s gregarious nature might have initially appealed to Trump, but he soon soured on him. In June 2020, Milley privately opposed Trump’s talk of invoking the Insurrection Act to put active-duty troops in the streets of Washington to counter protests sparked by the killing by Minneapolis police of a Black man, George Floyd.
Milley also expressed pub- lic regret at being part of a Trump entourage that strolled across Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, to be positioned near a church where Trump held up a Bible for photographers. Critics hit Milley for appear- ing to be a political pawn. Days later, Milley said he had made a big mistake. Through the months that followed, he seemed at risk of being sacked by Trump.
In the book “I Alone Can Fix It,” Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reported that on the day President Joe Biden was sworn in, Milley expressed relief to former first lady Michelle Obama.
“No one has a bigger smile today than I do,” Milley said.