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Apolitical Top US Military Officer Again at Center of Controversy


FILE - Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley arrives for a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan.

As the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the gruff, highly decorated Army General Mark Milley reportedly was handpicked by then-President Donald Trump because of his “tough guy” swagger and blunt talk.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the president, not the chairman, is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military. And from the beginning in 2019, the Princeton-educated Milley strongly signaled that his main responsibility was to protect and defend the Constitution and not cater to a controversial president.

Officials close to Milley tell VOA his focus toward allies and competitors alike has been one that pursues “strategic stability” while reducing tensions.

But the chairman’s efforts to remain apolitical have sometimes been interpreted by his critics as politicizing his position. The man who has said he wants to keep the military out of politics has repeatedly found himself at the center of political debate and controversy.

2020 protests

Milley apologized in June 2020 for walking with Trump across Lafayette Square, where demonstrators were protesting the death of African American George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

FILE - President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington.
FILE - President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington.


Riot police and members of the National Guard forcibly cleared protesters out of the public park in front of the White House before Trump crossed the square with several members of his Cabinet and Milley. The president then stood in front of an historic church, posing for photographs with a Bible in his hands.

“I should not have been there,” Milley said later in remarks to students at National Defense University.

Immediately after the incident, a senior defense official told reporters that neither Milley nor then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper had intended to take part in the photo-op and thought they were merely walking outside to view troops present at the protests.

In the final days of Trump’s presidency, Milley also issued a message to the military denouncing the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters attempting to overturn President Joe Biden’s election victory.

“The violent riot in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, was a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, and our Constitutional process,” Milley and other chiefs of staff wrote in a force-wide memo.

“We witnessed actions inside the Capitol building that were inconsistent with the rule of law. The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection,” the chiefs added.

Privately, Milley is reported to have bitterly blamed Trump for the tone of the election leading up to the riot, likening it to the circumstances around an election in Nazi-era Germany.

“This is a Reichstag moment,” he told others, referring to the 1933 attack on the German Parliament, according to a book by Washington Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker.

‘Peril’ reignites criticism

Now, new information shared in the book “Peril,” an account of the final days of the Trump administration by reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post, has some experts once again claiming Milley has damaged the relationship between civilian and military leadership.

“The general’s actions have strained important civil-military precedent, and that trust will need to be repaired." Retired Army Colonel Jeff McCausland, a former member of the National Security Council, wrote this week in an NBC News essay. “But they have also revealed the ripple effects of a president desperate to stay in office.”

FILE - China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Gen. Li Zuocheng, center, speaks during a meeting with U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, not shown, at the Bayi Building in Beijing, Aug. 16, 2016.
FILE - China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Gen. Li Zuocheng, center, speaks during a meeting with U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, not shown, at the Bayi Building in Beijing, Aug. 16, 2016.


The backlash centers around two phone calls Milley made to Chinese General Li Zuocheng. According to the book, Milley is reported to have told Li in the first call on October 30, 2020, that he would contact him if a nuclear attack by the United States was imminent.

Milley reached out a second time in the aftermath of the January 6 assault on the Capitol to attempt to reassure the Chinese that the U.S. remained stable, reportedly telling Li that “democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”

In addition to the two calls to his Chinese counterpart, Milley also reportedly held a secret meeting of the country’s senior military leaders in the Pentagon after Trump’s refusal to accept the presidential election results. According to the book, during the meeting, he reminded officers of the procedure for launching nuclear weapons and sought to ensure that nuclear launch control officers would notify him if an order of that magnitude was issued.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio and retired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman have called for Milley’s resignation over the revelations, with Rubio saying the general was trying to "actively undermine" Trump.

Milley said Friday that the calls he made to Li were “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his job.

Concerning the meeting on the nuclear weapons procedures, Milley’s spokesman, Army Colonel Dave Butler, said it “was to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject.”

President Joe Biden threw his support to Milley shortly after the book’s findings were revealed, saying he had “great confidence” in the general.

Chairman of the joint chiefs

The chairman typically serves one four-year term upon nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate. While the president is the commander-in-chief of the military, Congress also controls the military through its sole power to declare war and its responsibility to raise and support armed forces.

This civilian control, split between the executive and legislative branches of government, was built into the Constitution to “advance the nation’s security, while at the same time ensuring that instruments of force do not undermine the practice of American democracy,” according to a Congressional Research Service report from June 2020.

While the chairman outranks all other military officers and is a very prestigious position, he or she is prohibited by law from operational command of combat troops. Instead, the chairman is the principal military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense as they carry out their command authorities.

The Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986 delineates the chain of military command from the president to the secretary of defense directly to the commander of a combatant command. Therefore, military activities in Iraq, for example, would be carried out by U.S. Central Command chief Marine General Frank McKenzie, not by the joint chiefs.

The joint chiefs include the chairman, the vice chairman and the heads of the six military branches, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Space Force and the National Guard Bureau.

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