General Milley and the Recent Revelations
No doubt about it — he’s a hero!
Back in July I published a piece titled “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Is a True Hero.” If you have not previously read it — please do so. Recently new revelations about General Mark Milley’s actions in the last months of the Trump administration have emerged, mostly from the pending book Peril by legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and his colleague Robert Costa. As a result, many have called for General Milley to resign including — surprisingly — retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and — unsurprisingly — Florida Senator Marco Rubio. As for me, I stand firmly by my view that Milley is a hero and should not only retain his office but likely be extended in it.
As argued in the July piece, no previous Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS in military language) has ever faced the challenges that landed in Milley’s lap. He was operating without any precedent and was forced to chart a course through waters that were both uncharted and stormy. He did so, according to Woodward and Costa, by assuring a potential adversary that despite the strained US-China relationship, there were no plans for any sort of American attack.
Omitted from much of the reporting, and clearly from the assessments of Vindman (who should know better) and Rubio (who does know better but doesn’t care) is that Milley’s calls were coordinated through the inter-agency process and that over a dozen others were on the calls listening in. Unlike Trump’s infamous “perfect call” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zalensky, that Vindman famously listened to, Milley did not “go rogue.”
Most probably the Chinese were not concerned about Milley, but after three years of dealing with Trump were very likely concerned about him. Milley’s effort was to calm their concerns, however legitimate they might have been, and to assure them that American military controls were in place and functioning.
The CJCS communicating with counterparts of potential adversaries is full of precedent. In 1988 Soviet Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev came to the United States and met with Admiral William Crowe, then the JCS Chairman. In March 1990, Crowe reciprocated and travelled to the Soviet Union to meet with Akhromayev as well as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, fortuitous timing as the Soviet Union collapsed a year later leaving American leaders momentarily concerned about who was controlling the expansive Soviet nuclear arsenal. In May 1997, CJCS General John Shalikashvili visited China in a successful effort to lower tensions over Taiwan. In November 2006, US Pacific fleet commander Admiral Gary Roughead traveled to China to meet with his Chinese counterparts to deconflict the naval activities of the two countries in the Pacific. As the former CJCS Admiral Michael Mullen has stated, there was nothing unusual or inappropriate about Milley communicating with a foreign power.
Despite this history of fully coordinated communications and visits, former Trump administration officials are claiming that the White House was not fully aware of Milley’s actions. Given the dysfunction of the Trump White House at the time, with a president only focused on re-election — and after the vote itself frantically scrambling to find a way to negate the results, and the fact that after the election the Pentagon was led by a largely unqualified “acting” defense secretary assisted by an equally unqualified “acting” under-secretary for policy, why would that be surprising? As several have commented, after November 6th Trump essentially ignored the actual responsibilities of his office.
But there is one more item that needs to be considered here — the very special nature of nuclear weapons. Essentially, the authority to employ nuclear weapons rests with the president — alone. In other words, prior to January 20, 2021, it rested with Donald Trump. Within the military itself, anyone who works with nuclear weapons and codes must have a special certification. As a former nuclear-capable unit commander, I once had the responsibility to grant such a certification to my soldiers approving them for nuclear duties under the “Personnel Reliability Program” — the PRP.
Being PRP certified required a medical examination and clearance, a psychological evaluation, a special background investigation, and the careful consideration of those results combined with personal observation. At the Department of Defense level, the specifics of the PRP were spelled out in DoD Instructions 5210.42.
Prior to 2016, those instructions contained specific guidance on the personal characteristics that would disqualify someone from PRP certification, characteristics including: “a pattern of behavior or actions that is reasonably indicative of a contemptuous attitude toward the law or other duly constituted authority”; serious incidents including but not limited to, “misdemeanor offenses, assault, sexual misconduct, financial irresponsibility”; and a poor attitude evidenced by an “aberrant attitude (arrogance, inflexibility, or suspiciousness), behavior (impulsiveness, destructiveness, or suicide threats), or mood (unusual happiness, sadness, or agitation).”
In short, were he a member of the military Donald Trump would never have been allowed anywhere near nuclear weapons. Yet, as president, he not only had access to the launch codes he also had the authority to launch the weapons. Given Trump’s arrogance, impulsiveness, and extreme agitation after losing the election, General Milley and others were rightfully concerned. They frequently witnessed this behavior by Trump and would have been derelict not to address it and erect safeguards wherever possible.
Some have argued that Milley exceeded his authority by insisting he was part of any decisions regarding the employment of forces. Technically, this is correct as the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act clearly stated that the formal chain of command runs from the president, to the secretary of defense, and then to the combatant commanders. The CJCS is the senior “military advisor.” As with all other legislation since 1949 regarding the structure and functioning of the US military establishment, the role of the CJCS has been intentionally limited to ensure civilian control. However, the Goldwater-Nichols Act also clearly stated that the CJCS was the senior military officer within the military establishment, out-ranking all others including the combatant commanders.
As the senior officer, it was quite clearly within Milley’s purview to set the tone, to ensure that everyone realized the situation they were in, and that all of those junior to him understood the content of their oath and their legal responsibilities under the law. Milley judiciously met that responsibility numerous times in the last months of the Trump administration — reminding others of where their loyalties actually resided, taking personal responsibility for his brief presence at the Lafayette Square debacle in June, and challenging an increasingly impulsive president when he attempted to issue illegal orders.
No military officer below the CJCS has a comprehensive view of the full intelligence picture, the global circumstances existing in all commands, and — perhaps most significantly in this instance — the mood and attitude of the commander-in-chief, the president. Milley had suffered through numerous sessions and discussions with Trump and had come to understand his fanciful thinking and misplaced motivations. He was aware Trump was being advised to declare the election invalid and to re-conduct it under military supervision, an illegal action with no constitutional basis. No combatant commander had such insight or intimate knowledge.
A highly decorated retired senior officer recently noted that our existing constitutional system largely rested on the premise that the president would be a person of “integrity, experience, and principle.” No one in the military establishment knew better than General Mark Milley how fully devoid Donald Trump was of those qualities. He needed to do what he could, and he did — correctly and properly. Despite the chaos of January 6th, the end result was a peaceful inauguration on January 20, 2021.
There are many who deserve credit for getting the country safely to and through the 2021 inauguration. General Mark Milley may not be the most deserving of high praise, but he is certainly very high on the list.