Discover more from Letters from an American
September 24, 2023
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the nation’s highest-ranking military officer and the principal military advisor to the president, secretary of defense, and national security council. The current chairman, Army General Mark Milley, has served in the military for 44 years, deploying in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Panama, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Somalia, and the Republic of Korea. He holds a degree in political science from Princeton University, a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from the U.S. Naval War College in national security and strategic studies.
Former president Trump chose Milley for that position, but on Friday night, Trump posted an attack on Milley, calling him “a Woke train wreck” and accusing him of betraying the nation when, days before the 2020 election, he reassured his Chinese counterpart that the U.S. was not going to attack China in the last days of the Trump administration, as Chinese leaders feared.
Trump was reacting to a September 21 piece by Jeffrey Goldberg about Milley in The Atlantic, which portrays Milley as an important check on an erratic, uninformed, and dangerous president while also warning that “[i]n the American system, it is the voters, the courts, and Congress that are meant to serve as checks on a president’s behavior, not the generals.”
Trump posted that Milley “was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States. This was an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH! A war between China and the United States could have been the result of this treasonous act. To be continued!!!”
In fact, the calls were hardly rogue incidents. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, another Trump appointee, endorsed Milley’s October call, and Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who replaced Esper when Trump fired him just after the election, gave permission for a similar call Milley made in January 2021. At least ten officials from the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department were on the calls.
Trump is suggesting that in acting within his role and through proper channels, our highest ranking military officer has committed treason and that such treason in the past would have warranted death, with the inherent suggestion that we should return to such a standard. It seems much of the country has become accustomed to Trump’s outbursts, but this threat should not pass without notice, not least because Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) echoed it today in his taxpayer-funded newsletter.
In the letter, Gosar refers to Milley as “the homosexual-promoting-BLM-activist Chairman of the military joint chiefs,” a “deviant” who “was coordinating with Nancy Pelosi to hurt President Trump, and treasonously working behind Trump’s back. In a better society,” he wrote, “quislings like the strange sodomy-promoting General Milley would be hung. He had one boss: President Trump, and instead he was secretly meeting with Pelosi and coordinating with her to hurt Trump.”
Trump chose Milley to chair the Joint Chiefs but turned on him when Milley insisted the military was loyal to the Constitution rather than to any man. Milley had been dragged into participating in Trump’s march across Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, to threaten Black Lives Matter protesters, although Milley peeled off when he recognized what was happening and later said he thought they were going to review National Guard troops.
The day after the debacle, Milley wrote a message to the joint force reminding every member that they swore an oath to the Constitution. “This document is founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly…. As members of the Joint Force—comprised of all races, colors, and creeds—you embody the ideals of our Constitution.”
“We all committed our lives to the idea that is America,” he wrote by hand on the memo. “We will stay true to that oath and the American people.”
Milley’s appearance with Trump as they crossed Lafayette Square drew widespread condemnation from former military leaders, and in the days afterward, Milley spoke to them personally, as well as to congressional leaders, to apologize. Milley also apologized publicly. “I should not have been there,” he said to graduates at National Defense University’s commencement. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” Milley went on to defend the Black Lives Matter protesters Trump was targeting, and to say that the military must address the systematic racism that has kept people of color from the top ranks.
Milley’s defense of the U.S. military, 43% of whom are people of color, drew not just Trump’s fury, but also that of the right wing. Then–Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson made a special effort to undermine the man he said was “not just a pig, he’s stupid!” “The Pentagon is now the Yale faculty lounge, but with cruise missiles. That should concern you,” he told his audience. As Carlson berated the military for being “woke,” his followers began to turn against the military they had previously championed.
Trump has made it clear he intends to weaponize the government against those he perceives to be his enemies, removing those who refuse to do his bidding and replacing them with loyalists. Ominously, according to Goldberg, another area over which Trump and Milley clashed was the military’s tradition of refusing to participate in acts that are clearly immoral or illegal. Trump overrode MIlley’s advice not to intervene in the cases of three men charged with war crimes, later telling his supporters, “I stuck up for three great warriors against the deep state.”
Goldberg points out that in a second Trump administration packed with loyalists, there will be few guardrails, and he notes that Milley has told friends that if Trump is reelected, “[h]e’ll start throwing people in jail, and I’d be on the top of the list.”
But Milley told Goldberg he does not expect Trump to be reelected. “I have confidence in the American people,” he said. “The United States of America is an extraordinarily resilient country, agile and flexible, and the inherent goodness of the American people is there.” Last week, he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that he is “confident that the United States and the democracy in this country will prevail and the rule of law will prevail…. These institutions are built to be strong, resilient and to adapt to the times, and I'm 100% confident we'll be fine."
Milley’s statement reflects the increasingly powerful reassertion of democratic values over the past several years. In general, the country seems to be moving beyond former president Trump, who remains locked in his ancient grievances and simmering with fear about his legal troubles—Adam Rawnsley and Asawin Suebsaeng of Rolling Stone recently reported he has been asking confidants about what sort of prison might be in his future—and what he has to say seems so formulaic at this point that it usually doesn’t seem worth repeating. Indeed, much of his frantic posting seems calculated to attract headlines with shock value.
But, for all that, Trump is the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. He has suggested that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s senior military advisor, has committed treason and that such a crime is associated with execution, and one of his loyalists in government has echoed him.
And yet, in the face of this attack on one of our key national security institutions, an attack that other nations will certainly notice, Republican leaders remain silent.