When a president goes rogue, what can the chairman of the Joint Chiefs do?

·Contributor
·11-min read

On Nov. 11, 2020, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley contemplated an unexpected piece of paper that came across his desk entitled “Memorandum for the Acting Secretary of Defense: Withdrawal from Somalia and Afghanistan.” The memo directed Chris Miller, the newly installed acting defense secretary, to withdraw all U.S. troops from Somalia no later than Dec. 31, and from Afghanistan no later than Jan. 15, 2021.

The memo was signed by then-President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump speaks to the press at General Mitchell International Airport November 2, 2020, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
President Donald Trump on Nov. 2, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

After Milley confirmed that neither Secretary Miller nor his new chief of staff, Kash Patel, knew anything about the memo, the three men traveled to the White House to confront national security adviser Robert O’Brien. He also had no idea where the memo originated. In a remarkable scene recounted in the new book “Peril,” co-authored by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post, Milley struggled to grasp how an order of such profound strategic consequence could fly under the radar of the entire national security team.

“What do you mean you have no idea? You’re the national security adviser to the president?” Milley responded to O’Brien, as recounted in “Peril.” “And the secretary of defense didn’t know about this? And the chief of staff to the secretary of defense didn’t know about this? The chairman didn’t know? How the hell does this happen?”

The book details Gen. Milley’s growing alarm and attempts to erect safeguards against an increasingly erratic and unpredictable president and his enablers in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Even before the election Milley had received intelligence that China’s leadership were alarmed by the erratic actions of a president who publicly blamed Beijing for a global pandemic, and by increased U.S. military activity in the South China Sea.

At the urging of previous Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Milley had instigated the first of two “secret” phone calls to Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng on Oct. 30, 2020, reassuring his counterpart that the United States was “100 percent steady.”

Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, pauses while speaking during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sept. 1. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Gen. Li, you and I have known each other for now five years,” Milley said, according to the book. “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”

Early excerpts from “Peril” have led a number of Republican lawmakers and other critics to call on Milley to resign or be fired for violating the sacrosanct principle of civilian control of the military. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., even called his actions “treasonous.” But five former four-star flag officers contacted for this article all argued that by reaching out to the Chinese in a time of heightened tensions, Milley was acting in full accordance with the playbook for military-to-military engagements.

“During a time of heightened geopolitical apprehension there is a greater risk of miscalculation, so Gen. Milley calling his Chinese counterpart to say, 'Don’t misunderstand what you’re seeing,' and stressing that this is not a prelude to war, is exactly what you’d expect him to do. We established a secure communications link for military-to-military dialogue with the Chinese for that express purpose,” said a former four-star flag officer speaking on background to be candid. “Frankly, the comment attributed to Milley that ‘I’ll call you and warn you of an attack,’ doesn’t sound like him, but if he said it, I assure you it wasn’t a promise to leak any secret plan to attack China.”

What clearly emerges from the narrative reflected in “Peril” and other recent books is a chairman of the Joint Chiefs who was trying to avert a constitutional crisis while protecting the country from what he believed to be a rogue president and his enablers. Those efforts include Milley convening senior military officers in charge of the National Military Command Center to remind them that procedures dictate his involvement in the execution of any order from the White House to launch military strikes.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walks to pay his respects as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Capitol on Sept. 25, 2020.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walks to pay his respects as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Capitol on Sept. 25, 2020. (Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

“When Gen. Milley learned that the president had ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan in a matter of weeks, without the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or secretary of Defense even knowing about it, let alone getting a chance to provide their best military advice, at that point he had to worry that something had gone badly wrong with the National Command Authority,” retired Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, said in an interview with Yahoo News. “That was an unmistakable indicator that the government’s decision-making process had broken down, and Milley had a major problem on his hands.”

Civil-military relations under President Trump had grown increasingly tense at least since the resignation in late 2018 of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, who opposed Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria and abandon Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State (an order that Trump later rescinded).

Military leaders also chafed at Trump’s efforts to politicize the most purposely apolitical institution in the U.S. government, including treating appearances with the troops like political rallies, where he excoriated political opponents and signed “Make America Great Again” hats.

A turning point in that downward trajectory came in June 2020 during a White House meeting that included Gen. Milley and then-Defense Secretary Esper. After a crowd of demonstrators was violently dispersed from Lafayette Park in front of the White House, Trump strode across the park flanked by Gen. Milley, Secretary Esper and Attorney General William Barr. In front of historic St. John’s Church, Trump posed while silently holding a Bible aloft for a two-minute photo op.

Then-President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit  St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020.
Then-President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A public backlash prompted Milley to publicly apologize for his presence in Lafayette Square, and Esper publicly opposed the president invoking the Insurrection Act in order to send thousands of active-duty service members onto the streets to quell domestic protests. Both moves infuriated Trump.

When Trump fired Defense Secretary Esper days after the election, followed in quick order by the arrival of the rogue White House memo ordering troops out of Somalia and Afghanistan, Milley had reason to become alarmed. The memo was reportedly crafted at the behest of 30-year-old White House staffer Johnny McEntee, who was hustled out of the White House two years earlier after a security clearance check revealed a prolific gambling habit.

“After the election President Trump was decapitating his own government and installing loyalists throughout the federal bureaucracy who were fully capable and willing to use coercive means to stay in power, some of whom were arguing for the deployment of the U.S. military to control the streets,” said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of U.S. Southern Command. “If you were analyzing these events in a third-world country, you would accurately conclude that an attempted coup was underway.”

It was certainly not lost on Gen. Milley and other senior officials that Trump’s sustained and increasingly shrill insistence that the election had been stolen in “the most rigged election in history” could foreshadow a constitutional crisis. In a conversation reported in “Peril,” CIA Director Gina Haspel told Milley at one point, “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.”

Fans unroll a banner in support of former U.S. President Donald Trump during the fourth inning of Game Two of a doubleheader between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on May 27, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Fans unroll a banner in support of former U.S. President Donald Trump during the fourth inning of Game Two of a doubleheader between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on May 27, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“I truly believe that Gen. Milley did the right thing at a significant moment in our nation’s history, and I strongly suspect that we will learn that many other senior officials shared his concern that the president’s mental condition was deteriorating in a dangerous way,” retired Admiral Charles “Steve” Abbot, former commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and deputy homeland security adviser, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

The reality was that the president was actively opposing the peaceful transition of power, Abbot said, which amounted to “an effort to undermine our democracy.”

“For a long time we’ve heard from academics speaking eloquently about the principle of civilian control over the military, and their worries that the military could one day go rogue and challenge that control,” said Abbot. “Instead, what we witnessed was the president, and not the military, going rogue.”

On Jan. 8, two days after witnessing the attack on the capitol, Milley reportedly convened the “secret” meeting in his Pentagon office with the senior military officials in charge of the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon’s war room. He instructed them not to execute any orders initiating military action without his involvement.

“No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of the process,” Milley told the assembled officers, according to the co-authors of “Peril.” He went around the room looking each officer in the eye, and asked them to verbally confirm that they understood.

Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

In the days after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Milley also took pains in a phone call to assure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that there were sufficient checks in the nuclear command system to keep Trump from launching an unwarranted nuclear strike. He reportedly even seemed to agree with her assessment that Trump was “crazy.”

“People are making a big deal of those conversations, because as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Milley is not directly in the chain of command, but I can tell you he is an integral part of the National Command Authority and directly in the chain of communication,” retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former head of U.S. Central Command, told Yahoo News in an interview. “As a combatant commander, no order to launch military strikes can be executed without the involvement of the joint staff,” he said. “So if Milley had the least bit of concern about orders from the White House not coming through proper channels, he had not only the authority but the duty to remind everyone that as chairman he was part of the process, and he had to be kept in the loop.”

“A lot of controversy surrounding Milley’s actions as depicted in ‘Peril’ results from what I call the ‘naive theory of civil-military relations,’ which presumes that the U.S. military is just waiting around like a robot ready to turn any stray comment or proclamation from the president or the White House into kinetic action, and anything less than that is subversive to civilian control of the military,” Peter D. Feaver, the director of the Duke University Program on American Grand Strategy, and a former official on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview.

Then-President Donald Trump leaves after signing the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Aug. 13, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-President Donald Trump leaves after signing the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 at Fort Drum, N.Y., on Aug. 13, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

That’s not how civil-military relations work in reality, Feaver noted. Rather, all the players operate within a system where civilians have the final say and the right to be wrong, and U.S. military leaders have the duty to speak up and offer their best advice.

Kori Schake, director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and a former National Security Council official, said the events recounted in “Peril,” are likely more “salacious” than what took place, and the real question is whether Milley cooperated with Woodward and Costa on the book. If he did, that was a “mistake,” according to Schake.

“If presidents don’t trust that those conversations are confidential, they are more likely to try to pick generals based on their politics because they will be deemed more trustworthy,” said Schake. “And that would set a very bad precedent for civil-military relations.”

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