The top US general is standing firm amid sweeping changes at the Pentagon which have seen senior officials replaced by Trump idealogues and alarmed senior defense officials.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley made clear his dedication to the constitution at an event Wednesday while standing beside the newly installed acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.
“We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution. And every soldier that is represented in this museum, every sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman, each of us will protect and defend that document, regardless of personal price,” Milley said during remarks at the opening of the US Army’s museum.
While Milley routinely references the military’s oath to uphold the Constitution, he chose to reinforce that message during his first public remarks following the major shakeup of the Pentagon’s senior civilian leadership.
Speaking immediately following Milley’s speech, Miller, who was named acting secretary Monday in a tweet by President Donald Trump that also fired his predecessor Mark Esper, joked, “thanks for setting the bar very high for the new guy to come in and make a few words, I think all I would say to your statements is amen, well done.”
In the wake of Trump’s dramatic purge of some of the senior-most civilian officials at the Pentagon who have been replaced with political loyalists and conspiracy theorists, all eyes are now focused on whether Trump will take any action against the uniformed military leadership, including Milley.
The new appointments include Douglas MacGregor who once advocated for using lethal force to deter migrants from crossing the border illegally and Anthony Tata who once called Barack Obama a terrorist leader and suggested that a former CIA director was using a Cicero quote to activate a sleeper agent to kill the President.
While the military prides itself as being non-ideological, senior uniformed officers will have to work with new administration appointees who are fiercely committed to Trump’s agenda.
In contrast to the politically appointed civilian leadership posts, many of whom have been pushed out or resigned in the last 48 hours, the military leadership historically continues on into the next administration.
All this comes as Trump refuses to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden and the administration is yet to trigger the formal transition process.
Milley concerned about politicization
Prior to the election CNN reported that Milley was concerned about the military being politicized and ready to argue against the President invoking the Insurrection Act in the wake of any post-election civil unrest – a move that could put military force on the streets against civilians.
Milley, who was appointed in October 2019, will officially leave office at the end of his term in 2023.
President Barack Obama appointed Gen. Joseph Dunford chairman in 2015 and Dunford served in the role during the first years of the Trump Administration until his term expired in 2019.
But Trump could choose to sack his top general before Milley’s term is up in 2023.
Many of the Trump loyalists that have been installed at the senior most posts at the Pentagon come from the White House National Security Council staff and are expected to push the NSC’s priorities at the Defense Department.
While several officials have lauded Miller’s reputation and ability, several describe him as relatively inexperienced for someone taking on such a senior post, with one senior defense official describing him as a “tool” and “vassal of the NSC” put in place to execute the White House’s agenda.
Knowledgeable sources told CNN’s Jake Tapper Tuesday that the White House-directed purge at the Defense Department may be because now ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his team were pushing back on a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan that would be carried out before the required conditions on the ground were met, and other pending security issues.
Milley has stressed Afghanistan withdrawal must be conditions based
Milley has also been relatively vocal in stressing that any withdrawals from Afghanistan should be based on conditions and done in a manner that does not threaten US security.
That stance saw the senior general become engaged in a war of words with the White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien who advocated for a more accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan irrespective of conditions on the ground.
US military officials have long stressed that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is conditions based, with those conditions including the Taliban’s breaking its ties to al Qaeda and making progress in peace talks with the Afghan government, two conditions that have yet to be met.
But despite the lack of progress, the Trump administration has already substantially reduced US troops in Afghanistan by more than 50%, bringing the number of US military personnel there down to about 4,500, the lowest levels since the earliest days of the post 9/11 campaign.
Milley has also indicated support for renaming bases named after Confederate officers and apologized for appearing in a photo-op with Trump following the forceful dispersal of peaceful protesters outside the White House, calling the move a “mistake” and saying his presence “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Trump has defended the photo-op and pushed back strongly against efforts to change the name of bases named after Confederate officers.
But while Trump could fire Milley in theory, his would be technically limited in who he could tap to replace him.
Trump White House
According to law, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. John Hyten would automatically serve as the acting chairman upon Milley’s departure.
If Trump were to also dismiss Hyten, the President would then have to designate a member of the Joint Chiefs as acting chairman.
For his part, Milley appears to be carrying on with business as usual.
Shortly after Esper was fired on Monday, Milley held a secure video teleconference with the other members of the Joint Chiefs and the leaders of the Combatant Commands in the secure meeting room known as the “tank,” according to a senior US military official.
The senior officials subsequently called their counterparts overseas to assure them that the US military mission continues and to assure them the Pentagon is maintaining its military stability around the world, the official said.
Acting secretary Miller has met with Milley and other top staff to give them his initial guidance to not expect “significant changes at this time,” the official said.
Milley has also been carrying out normal business, meeting Tuesday with Qatar’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ghanem bin Shaheen Al Ghanem at the Pentagon.