Retiring U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley forcefully defended American democracy and the Constitution on Friday, as he handed the reins of the military’s top post to his successor, General Charles Q. Brown Jr.
“We don’t take an oath to a tribe. We don’t take an oath to a religion. We don't take an oath to a king or a queen or a tyrant or a dictator. We don't take an oath to a wannabe dictator,” he said during an event held in tribute to his service at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia.
In his impassioned speech, Milley made clear that the military will do what is necessary to defend the Constitution, including from enemies from within.
“It is that document that all of us in uniform swear to protect and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Milley said, giving extra emphasis on the words “all” in “all enemies” and the “and” between “foreign and domestic.”
Speaking at the event to honor Milley, President Joe Biden hailed him as a warrior who served in war zones from Afghanistan and Iraq to Panama and Haiti.
“A leader who once ran across a bridge booby-trapped with mines to stop two battle tanks evacuating wounded troops from driving across it,” Biden said of Milley. “A patriot, uncompromising in his duty, unflinching in the face of danger, and unwavering in the service for the country.”
During his four-year tenure, Milley oversaw the 2019 killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State terrorist group; the chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021; and the military assistance provided to Ukraine since Russia’s February 2022 invasion.
Clash with Trump
Milley’s office did not immediately respond to queries about whom the general was referring to when he said, “We don't take an oath to a wannabe dictator.” But some observers believed his vow to profess no loyalty to such a person was a thinly veiled reference to Biden’s predecessor, who is seeking to return to office and holds a commanding lead in the polls among Republican presidential nomination candidates.
“It does sound like he means President [Donald] Trump,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow specializing in U.S. defense strategy at the Brookings Institution.
“It is quite unusual for a general to speak this way, and it may or may not be well-advised,” O’Hanlon told VOA. “But of course, it is certainly Trump who began the animosity and himself broke all the usual barriers that would prevent such things from being said in normal times by normal American leaders.”
Milley assumed his position under Trump’s administration but has since clashed with the former president, going so far as expressing his concerns following Biden’s electoral victory in 2020 that Trump would attempt to hold on to power and his concerns should Trump return to office.
Earlier this week, Milley said he would take measures to protect his family’s safety, following Trump’s social media comments suggesting Milley should be executed for secret talks with officials in China toward the end of his presidency.
“If the Fake News reporting is correct, [Milley] was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States,” Trump wrote in a post on his Truth Social site. He suggested that Milley’s “treasonous act” could have resulted in a “war between China and the United States.”
“This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been death!” Trump wrote.
In September 2021, Milley testified to Congress that he had conveyed to officials in Beijing that Trump was not planning to attack China during his final weeks in office.
“My task at that time was to de-escalate,” Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “My message again was consistent: Stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”
The post attacking Milley was cited by Jack Smith, the special counsel prosecuting Trump on federal charges of attempting to overturn Biden’s 2020 electoral victory, in his argument to bolster the case to put a limited gag order on the former president ahead of his trial in Washington.
In a speech Thursday on the theme of defending democracy, Biden issued his own blistering criticism of Trump, asserting that the former president represents an existential threat to the country’s democratic values and institutions. Defending Milley, Biden did not hide his dismay about Republicans’ muted reaction to Trump’s suggestion that the top general should be executed.
"Although I don't believe even a majority of Republicans think that, the silence is deafening," he said.
Milley will hand over the military’s leadership to Brown, whom Biden praised as “a seasoned warrior with deep combat experience,” and a leader known throughout the force for his “unmatched judgment and unflappable demeanor.”
Brown, the country’s 21st chairman, and the first chairman from the Air Force since General Richard B. Myers held the position in 2005, is the second Black officer to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after Colin Powell two decades ago.
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.