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Magazine - Washington Briefing

Republicans say Gen. Mark Milley overstepped authority to thwart Trump

If Republicans are successful in wresting control of Congress from Democrats in the November midterm elections, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is likely to have a lot more explaining to do.

For more than a year, Milley has given what some Republicans regard as less-than-satisfactory answers to questions about his actions as the nation’s senior military officer during the final year of former President Donald Trump's administration.

Concerns about Milley include improperly inserting himself in the military chain of command to thwart orders from Trump that he didn’t agree with. The charges arise from revelations in a series of anti-Trump books that paint a picture of Milley as an implacable foe of his commander in chief, working relentlessly behind the scenes to thwart what he saw as a reckless president gone rogue.

And what’s clear from the books, as well as Milley’s own public testimony, is that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs himself is the source of the many anecdotes that portray his disdain for Trump and detail his efforts to keep the then-president in check.

The most serious charge is that after the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, Milley, fearful an unhinged Trump might unleash a nuclear war, violated the bedrock principle of civilian control of the military when he gathered officers from the National Military Command Center and gave them strict orders.

"Any doubt, any irregularity, first, call me directly and immediately. Do not act until you do," Milley is quoted as saying in the book Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

“There's a procedure," Milley reportedly said. "And I'm part of that procedure."

In a floor speech in July, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) argued that directing senior military officers not to follow the president’s orders unless approved by Milley is a “grave crime” tantamount to “secretly seizing the president’s military powers.”

Banks and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) have written Milley several times requesting he verify or refute the account in Woodward’s book. The lawmakers said Milley keeps dodging the question, insisting he’s never read any of the books.

Grassley in a Senate floor speech called Milley’s responses, including a 10-page letter, “the same old smoke and mirrors routine.” Milley has failed to set the record straight months after his initial request, Grassley added.

Milley’s office insisted his actions fell well within the purview of his responsibilities as chairman. Under a Department of Defense directive, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “creates, supports, and operates” the command and control system for a nuclear launch, and the directive includes a provision requiring “a decision conference” for authentication of presidential orders. The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would both take part.

“By law, I am not in the chain of command, and I know that,” Milley testified on Sept. 28, 2021, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “However, by presidential directive and DOD instruction, I am in the chain of communication to fulfill my legal statutory role as the president's primary military adviser.”

“The fact is he wasn’t usurping the president,” Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Washington Examiner. “He was reaffirming the formal procedures, which have been signed and directed by the president.”

At that same Armed Services Committee hearing last year, Milley admitted he talked to authors of a number of books highly critical of Trump’s performance as president, including I Alone Can Fix It by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker and Frankly, We Did Win This Election by Michael Bender of The New York Times.

Despite telling Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) at the time that he’d be “happy to” read the books and get back to her about their accuracy, Milley’s office said he has yet to tackle any of them.

“He’s prioritized his time and effort toward fulfilling the obligations of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” Butler said.

The latest tell-all just out this month is The Divider by the husband-wife team of Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. The book presents a detailed account of how Milley went from someone who initially told the president he would support his decisions so long as they were legal and promised “to give you an honest answer, and I’m not going to talk about it on the front page of the Washington Post," to eight months later drafting a scathing resignation letter and leaking it after Trump left office.

The letter, which was never sent and almost certainly was provided to the authors by Milley, accused Trump of “doing great and irreparable harm to my country.” Also making a “concerted effort over time to politicize” the military. And of “ruining the international order” that stands against "fascism and extremism."

It was in June 2020 that Milley decided not to quit, after the infamous clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square across from the White House. Milley instead opposed from within what he saw as Trump’s dangerously misguided inclinations.

“I’ll just fight him,” Milley told his staff, according to The Divider.

Milley decided to embark on a campaign of national security damage control, which he told the authors he intended to do without violating the Constitution or refusing lawful orders from his commander in chief.

“Yet the Constitution offered no practical guide for a general faced with a rogue president,” wrote Baker and Glasser. The authors quote Milley as saying, “If they want to court-martial me, or put me in prison, have at it, but I will fight from the inside.”

In a recent open letter signed by every living defense secretary from the last 30 years and the five most recently retired Joint Chiefs chairmen, the former leaders stressed the importance of civilian control of an apolitical military.

“Elected (and appointed) civilians have the right to be wrong, meaning they have the right to insist on a policy or direction that proves, in hindsight, to have been a mistake,” they wrote. “Military officials are required to carry out legal orders the wisdom of which they doubt.”

No one has suggested that Milley refused a direct order from Trump. But Trump’s allies in Congress are champing at the bit to grill Milley on “multiple lines of oversight” if Republicans take control of the House, according to a report by NBC news.

Concerns they want more answers about include Milley’s role in the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and whether the military has become too "woke" during Milley’s tenure.

Milley serves at the pleasure of the president. So his job as President Joe Biden’s chief military adviser seems safe, given that the commander in chief seems perfectly happy with Milley’s counsel.

But Congress, in particular the Senate, does have the power to determine if Milley is allowed to retire at his four-star rank. Republicans could, in theory, cut his retirement benefits if they find he did not serve honorably during the last year of the Trump administration.

Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at dailyondefense.com.