What Gen. Mark Milley has learned during his most recent years of service is what most Americans have now come to understand about former President Donald Trump. He was always a highly dysfunctional and dangerous leader, or as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi succinctly told the general, "crazy." Treating him as a "normal" president would involve unacceptable risk.
That knowledge had to be a stunning realization for a military leader raised in our country's traditions of strict civilian control of the armed services. When the civilian in control has lost control of himself — and struck many around him as unstable from the beginning — then the burden of averting disaster inevitably falls heavily on flag officers at the pinnacle of the command structure. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed by Trump himself, Milley confronted the conundrum in the frenzied final days of Trump's misrule.
Anyone who judges what the JCS chairman did must take into account the ominous context of his actions.
According to Peril, the aptly titled new book by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, tensions with China increasingly spooked top officials in the Pentagon as Election Day approached in the fall of 2020. Intelligence suggested that the Chinese military feared a U.S. military strike, ordered by Trump, who was screaming about "kung flu," which could erupt into a catastrophic conflict. Not only Milley but also then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper sent calming messages to their Chinese counterparts, urging them not to "over-read" Trump's belligerent threats during the presidential campaign.
It isn't clear whether Esper or Milley told the irrational Trump about those contacts. Milley has described the calls as "routine" and "perfectly within the duties" of his job.
The effects of their soothing outreach dissipated in the election's aftermath, when Trump's mad and bad behavior attempted the ultimate destabilization of the American order, climaxing in the attempted coup of January 6. Observing the potentially lethal mischief of a deranged president, the Chinese government went on red alert.
Woodward and Costa report that on January 8, as the full dimensions of Trump's assault on our political system emerged, Milley reached out to the Chinese leadership again. He offered assurances that Trump would not attack China and therefore China need not contemplate the launch of any preemptive or defensive attack on the U.S. The Post reporters write that Milley promised to deliver a secret warning to the Chinese if any such attack was imminent — although Axios reports a slightly different version, in which the JCS chairman says, "We'll both know if we're going to war ... there's not gonna be some surprise attack and there's no reason for you to do a preemptive strike."
At the same time, Milley sought to reinforce the safeguards within the U.S. chain of command, which are designed to prevent a nuclear strike by a crazed president who attempts to act unilaterally. Milley reiterated to top generals and admirals that they were not to undertake any military action outside those protocols that he feared Trump might attempt, perhaps through a lower-ranking officer.
Unsurprisingly, Trump is enraged by the revelation of his top general's profound sense of responsibility, which has put on public display again the utter disrespect and mistrust he engendered in every experienced official he appointed. They all knew firsthand that he was absurdly unqualified to be president, his incapacity exceeded only by his frightening arrogance. Beyond the forced displays of toadying by his Cabinet, not one person who observed him close-up thought he was competent or rational.
In Trump's cartoon presidency there were endlessly embarrassing and outrageous moments — and then there were other moments when an unstable narcissist with access to the nuclear codes could have become a threat to the world. If Trump had turned into such a menace, Milley's choices were very narrow indeed.
Milley upheld his oath out of patriotism to the highest degree, contrary to the right-wing banana republic chorus that ludicrously claims he committed "treason." Milley aimed to preserve stability and avoid crisis by following all the protocols. He retains the full confidence of President Joe Biden, for good reason.
Our flag officers are not about to follow the impulses of a real traitor like former Gen. Michael Flynn, the convicted criminal pardoned by Trump, who urged that Trump institute martial law. Gen. Mark Milley did his duty and performed under pressure with composure and honor. He is owed thanks, not insults.
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