Trump himself waded into the fray on Wednesday, calling on Milley to resign two days after reports emerged that the two got into a shouting match in the Situation Room last summer over the former president’s plan to deal with the protesters.
For a man who many viewed as just another Trump henchman just a year ago, the turnaround was striking. But current and former defense officials familiar with Milley’s thinking say the Joint Chiefs chair never set out to get embroiled in politics, but that it’s been forced upon him time and time again.
“I think Gen. Milley has consistently tried to keep the military out of politics. I think these incidents are more reflective of the challenging political environment that he’s operating in rather than an indication that he’s changed his mind on anything,” said retired Gen. Joseph Dunford, Milley’s predecessor who served as Joint Chiefs chair under both Trump and former President Barack Obama, in a rare interview.
“Gen. Milley did all he can do to adapt to President Trump and appropriately serve the president,” Dunford continued. “Now, Gen. Milley is doing that for President Biden.”
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who Trump fired in November, came to Milley’s defense on Wednesday, writing on Twitter that the chair’s “patriotism and commitment to the Constitution are without question.
“Attempts to denigrate him & politicize our military are wrong. I will always stand with/for him and the US military,” Esper said.
But other former defense officials criticized Milley for unnecessarily involving the military in politics yet again, even if that was not his intention.
“I think General Milley is trying, not very gracefully, to navigate choppy political waters and keep the military out of the fray,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “He went too far in allowing himself to be drawn in to supporting Trump in Lafayette Square, and on reflection I think he went too far in his recent testimony by letting himself be drawn into non-military issues.”
Despite his best efforts, Milley has proven unable to stay above the political fracas. During the Lafayette Square incident on June 1, 2020, Milley and Esper were on their way to attend a different meeting when they were unexpectedly diverted to the White House. As Milley walked with Trump across the square in his combat uniform, which he wears most days to work, he had no idea he was headed toward a photo op. Instead, he believed he was accompanying the president and his entourage to review National Guard troops and other law enforcement stationed outside the White House.
“Gen. Milley was not making a political statement at that time, he didn’t make a conscious decision to go there and participate in what was a political event,” Dunford said. “He was by his own admission probably in a place he didn’t want to be.”
That fateful walk kicked off a series of incidents that soured the relationship between Milley and his boss. Ahead of the June 1 protests, Milley repeatedly urged Trump not to deploy active-duty troops to restore order, the defense official said.
Milley confronted Trump about the issue in a fiery exchange last summer that will be featured in an upcoming book by The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender, Axios reported this week. The New York Times first reported the episode, but Bender’s book will reportedly have new details. During the exchange, Milley argued that by law he was an adviser and not in command of troops, according to Axios.
“I said you’re in f—ing charge!” Trump reportedly yelled during the episode, to which Milley shouted back “Well, I’m not in charge!”
“You can’t f—ing talk to me like that!” the president said, according to the excerpt. The incident was resolved when then-Attorney General William Barr told Trump that Milley’s legal argument was correct.
After the Lafayette Square incident, the backlash against Milley was immediate. Democratic politicians and former top military officials, including former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, slammed the chair for inappropriately politicizing the military. Milley later apologized, saying, “I should not have been there.”
Months later, ahead of the Jan. 6 protests, Milley made the same argument to Trump, urging him not to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops in Washington, D.C., the defense official said.
So far, Milley appears to have successfully managed the transition between Trump and Biden, who already knew the general. Like Trump, Biden has not always heeded Milley’s recommendations — Milley urged the new president not to pull out of Afghanistan, a move Biden announced in May — but he feels his advice is heard, according to people close to the chair.
Now, months into a new administration, Milley finds himself under fire from the other side. The chair enraged conservatives during an impassioned exchange with lawmakers last week, after Reps. Matt Gaetz and Michael Waltz accused the Pentagon of promoting critical race theory and impairing unit cohesion within the armed forces with a stand-down to discuss extremism. In response, Milley defended the military’s studying of all theories, and he pushed back against GOP criticism of the Pentagon’s efforts to combat racism and extremism in the ranks as making the armed forces too “woke.”
“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military … of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” Milley said.
“I’ve read Mao Tse Tung. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist,” Milley continued. “So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”
Trump laid into Milley over the remarks, first calling them “sad” and “pathetic” last week, and then saying on Wednesday that Milley made the comments to “further ingratiate himself” with the Biden administration, “progressive Media and the Radical Left.”
“Gen. Milley ought to resign, and be replaced with someone who is actually willing to defend our Military from the Leftist Radicals who hate our Country and our Flag,” Trump wrote in a statement sent by his Save America PAC.
The comments came as Milley faces ridicule from conservatives lawmakers and far-right commentators. Gaetz called Milley “the chairman of the woketopia,” and Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson said the general is “not just a pig, he’s stupid.”
John Gans, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, noted a perception among some critics that Milley has tended to drift too far with the political winds depending on which side is in power. The most recent comments, he said were “an answer for retweets,” and Milley may have been better served by moving on to more substantive topics.
But rather than a shift in Milley’s thinking, the debate reflects the increasingly polarized political environment in the country, he said.
“It’s a pretty hard time to lead a military at a time when the partisanship in the country is so extreme that people are storming the Capitol,” Gans said.
Indeed, people who know Milley say he was not trying to make a political point or defend critical race theory. In fact, if he had been asked the same question during the Trump administration, he would have given the same answer, said a defense official. Like others, this official asked not to be named in order to speak candidly. After repeated attacks by conservatives in recent weeks, Milley felt like the institution of the military was “under attack,” the person said.
“Gen. Milley did his best to try to walk through the raindrops of Donald Trump’s Washington and now the post-Trump Washington, but he always seems to show up soaking wet wherever he is,” Gans said. “I think that speaks to how intense and dangerous this environment is, because I think the military and Milley want to stay out of politics, but politics isn’t staying out of the military.”
A Joint Staff spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
Dunford also defended Milley’s comments, stressing that the general provided a candid answer to lawmakers under oath.
“I didn’t see anything in there where he advocated for a political position, and in fact on the contrary when he spoke about his perspective on the question I didn’t think it was political in nature,” Dunford said.
“I’m very confident in Gen. Milley’s nonpartisan approach to his duties and responsibilities,” Dunford added. “I’ve never seen a hint of him participating in partisan politics.”
On the blowback from conservatives about increasing diversity in the military to the detriment of the armed forces, Dunford noted the services need to tap into the “full talent of the United States” to build a force “that looks like the United States.” He stressed that he does not see seeking a more diverse force as being at odds with warfighting, noting that “we can do more than one thing at a time.”
Dunford also lamented the politicization of the military, which he called a “slippery slope” and said he shares Milley’s concern about the armed forces being caught in the middle of “what is inherently a partisan political dialogue.”
“I don’t think any of us are well-served right now if the U.S. military starts to be perceived as a Democrat or Republican institution,” he said. “All of the American people should look at the U.S. military as theirs regardless of what their political persuasion is.”