Tuesday, October 3, 2023

As he steps into retirement, Gen. Mark Milley says the greatest threat to American democracy will "come from within," an apparent reference to Trump and 2024

Gen. Mark Milley's farewell address.

Recent events have taught this lesson: Directing threats and trash talk toward a general in the U.S. military is not a good idea -- especially when your target is THE general, Mark Milley, recently retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump might be on the verge of learning that attacking the nation's No. 1 military man -- and being generally disrespectful toward the men and women in uniform -- is a dumb move, one that might have painful repercussions.

In his farewell speech last Friday, Milley strongly hinted that he sees Trump as a threat to national security, to the American democracy. And Milley made it clear that he and other military folks consider such threats to be serious matters. In fact, they take an oath to treat such matters with the utmost seriousness.

Trump spewed his invective as the Operation Saving Democracy political action committee has formed to stop him. What is Operation Saving Democracy? This is from its mission statement:

We have a track record of moving the needle to impact important electoral races around the country using the combined efforts of National Security Leaders for America (NSL4A) and Democratic Majority Action PAC (DMA).

NSL4A evolved from a historic bipartisan effort when more than 1,000 retired admirals, generals, ambassadors, and other national security leaders came together to endorse and support President Joe Biden in 2020 against Donald Trump. Its unique membership encompasses senior leaders from the military and national security-related government agencies, as well as elected officials at the state and local levels. Having dedicated their professional lives to protecting and supporting the “great American experiment” of democracy, almost 600 retired Generals, Admirals, Ambassadors, cabinet and service secretaries, appointed leaders, elected officials, and Senior Executive Service leaders have come together at this time of significant threat to the essential tenets of our Democratic institutions and values. DMA and The American SOS Project PAC are led by Amy McGrath, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who feels a sense of responsibility to fight for our democracy and for the future of our country. 

These partners previously worked together to make critical investments, defeating “election denier” candidates in the 2022 cycle.

Is Mark Milley part of this effort? That is not clear at the moment. But his farewell speech, delivered near Arlington National Cemetery, indicated he and Operation Saving Democracy are on the same page. From a report at CNN under the headline "Milley says the military doesn’t swear oath to a ‘wannabe dictator’ in apparent swipe at Trump":

In an impassioned and at times furious speech, departing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley defiantly proclaimed that the US military does not swear an oath to a “wannabe dictator.”

It was a bitter and pointed swipe that appeared unmistakably targeted at former President Donald Trump, who has in recent days accused Milley of “treason” and suggested that he should be put to death for his conduct surrounding Trump’s bid in 2021 to remain in office despite losing the presidential election.

“We are unique among the world’s militaries,” Milley said. “We don’t take an oath to a country, 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.”

“And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator,” he spat. “We take an oath to the Constitution and we take an oath to the idea that is America – and we’re willing to die to protect it.” 

It’s a line Milley has delivered before, including last year at the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps commissioning at Princeton, his alma mater. But he chose to use it Friday, standing alongside President Joe Biden during a national address – his last as the president’s top military adviser and the nation’s top general.

Trump largely has not  been held accountable for most of his life, but the conviction behind Milley's words suggests accountability might be heading in the direction of the Orange Menace -- at long last. From the CNN report:

Although he was appointed by Trump in 2018, Milley has in many ways been shadow-boxing with the former president since the summer of 2020, when Milley appeared briefly alongside Trump as he walked to a church outside of Lafayette Square for a photo op during the George Floyd protests. Milley, who was in uniform, later apologized publicly for “creat[ing] a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” The apology outraged Trump.

Their relationship became even more contentious in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. Milley took a number of extraordinary actions to safeguard against what he feared were Trump’s more outlandish instincts, as well as the general chaos of the moment.

Since then, he has become a frequent target for Trump and his allies. And his tenure as chairman has provoked fierce debate among military experts: Was Milley too willing to wade into the realm of domestic politics, or did he stand in the breach to protect a democracy in peril?

On Friday, as he handed over the reins of the chairmanship to Gen. CQ Brown, Milley gave a fierce defense of his view of the military’s defining ethos: to defend, if necessary with the life’s blood of those in uniform, the Constitution of the United States. Throughout, Milley’s suggestion, both implicit and explicit, was that the Constitution’s greatest enemy came 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, emphasizing the words “all” in “all enemies” and the “and” between “foreign and domestic."

Milley drew strong parallels between military duty and Constitutional freedoms. One, he said, can be lost without the other:

He appeared to obliquely address criticism that he has drawn the military into domestic politics, expressly linking military service with the protection of bedrock American civil rights.

“The blood we spill pays for our freedom of speech,” Milley thundered. “Our blood pays for the right to assemble, our due process, our freedom of press, our right to vote, and all the other rights and privileges that come with being an American.”

Milley also appeared to take a subtle shot at the US Congress, which is riven by political division and was poised to trigger a government shutdown over the  weekend.

Milley praised “the tremendous service” of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein and then pointedly addressed “all of her colleagues on the Hill.”

“You collectively demonstrate the American will,” Milley said. “We are viewed as either unified or divided, that is your choice. But everybody watches.”

“To our allies and partners, your presence demonstrates our shared interest and common values – and our robust network of allies and partners is a key source of our collective strength,” he said.

Milley has expressed concern about Trump's mental health and fitness for office before, especially in the aftermath of January 6. It does not seem clear to Milley that Trump holds the Constitution and the rule of law in high regard. It is clear that Milley considers Trump and his MAGA followers to be personal threats. From the CNN report:

Milley’s handling of the January 6 crisis continues to be the topic of fierce debate.

Two days after the attack on the Capitol, Milley – concerned that Trump “had gone into a serious mental decline” and might “go rogue” – instructed senior operations officers from the National Military Command Center not to take orders from anyone unless he was involved, according to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book, Peril.

He also made a now-controversial phone call in the days following the attack intended to reassure Beijing that the United States was stable and that it was not considering a military strike on China. Trump and his allies have since sought to portray that call, which was made in coordination with Trump administration officials at the Pentagon, as Milley conspiring to aid the Chinese in the event of conflict.

“This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Trump wrote on his social media site Truth Social last week. “A war between China and the United States could have been the result of this treasonous act.”

Trump doubled down on his attacks Friday, calling Milley a “moron” and “STUPID & VERY DANGEROUS!” in a Truth Social post after the apparent swipe earlier in the day.

The general has defended his behavior during the last days of the Trump administration, saying his interactions were not only appropriate but that numerous senior Trump officials were aware it occurred. In an appearance on CBS’ 60 Minutes this week, he said he would take additional safety precautions to protect his family in the wake of Trump’s attacks.

“I’ve got adequate safety precautions,” he said. “I wish those comments had not been made, but they were. We will take appropriate measures to ensure my safety and the safety of my family.”

What tools could the military use to hold Trump in line? The answer to that question likely will not be revealed to the public. But our guess is that Milley would not use such powerful language if he did not have the means to back it up  Dealing with Trump, however, poses numerous challenges. From "The Patriot," a profile of Milley in the November 2023 issue of The Atlantic. Writes Jeffrey Goldberg:

In normal times, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the principal military adviser to the president, is supposed to focus his attention on America’s national-security challenges, and on the readiness and lethality of its armed forces. But the first 16 months of Milley’s term, a period that ended when Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump as president, were not normal, because Trump was exceptionally unfit to serve. “For more than 200 years, the assumption in this country was that we would have a stable person as president,” one of Milley’s mentors, the retired three-star general James Dubik, told me. That this assumption did not hold true during the Trump administration presented a “unique challenge” for Milley, Dubik said.These views of Trump align with those of many officials who served in his administration. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, considered Trump to be a “fucking moron.” John Kelly, the retired Marine general who served as Trump’s chief of staff in 2017 and 2018, has said that Trump is the “most flawed person” he’s ever met. James Mattis, who is also a retired Marine general and served as Trump’s first secretary of defense, has told friends and colleagues that the 45th president was “more dangerous than anyone could ever imagine.” It is widely known that Trump’s second secretary of defense, Mark Esper, believed that the president didn’t understand his own duties, much less the oath that officers swear to the Constitution, or military ethics, or the history of America.

Milley was careful to refrain from commenting publicly on Trump’s cognitive unfitness and moral derangement. In interviews, he would say that it is not the place of the nation’s flag officers to discuss the performance of the nation’s civilian leaders.

But his views emerged in a number of books published after Trump left office, written by authors who had spoken with Milley, and many other civilian and military officials, on background. In The Divider, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser write that Milley believed that Trump was “shameful,” and “complicit” in the January 6 attack. They also reported that Milley feared that Trump’s “ ‘Hitler-like’ embrace of the big lie about the election would prompt the president to seek out a ‘Reichstag moment.’ ”

If Trump accomplishes nothing else, he has at least proven that the assumption our country would always have a stable person as president does not necessarily hold up. Along the same lines, it probably was assumed the country would have stable individuals serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. Given the recent Republican-driven drama over a possible government shutdown, that assumption doesn't appear to hold up either."

A statement on the Operation Saving Democracy website appears to address this issue:

For decades, the Republican Party has been seen as the party of national defense and security. In the age of Trump, extremism within that party has become a huge national security risk.

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