Gen. Milley says military doesn't answer to 'wannabe dictator' in apparent rebuke of Trump

WASHINGTON − Outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Friday that the U.S. military owes its loyalty to the Constitution, not to a "wannabe dictator" in apparent reference to former President Donald Trump with whom he has clashed.

“We are unique among the world’s militaries,” Milley said at his retirement ceremony attended by President Joe Biden and the nation's top military leaders. “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 to a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator.”

While Milley did not specifically mention Trump, his unusually strong comments came a week after Trump called Milley a traitor who might deserve the death penalty for his communications with China near the end of the Trump administration. Two days ago, Milley said in an interview with CBS News that he was taking steps to protect his family after Trump's comments.

The comments were extraordinary because troops, especially officers in leadership positions like Milley's, stress the need for service members to avoid politics.The imperative of staying out of politics was the reason Milley cited when he apologized publicly in 2020 for his appearance with Trump after Lafayette Square was forcibly cleared of protestors.

Milley said Friday members of the military commit their lives to protecting and defending the Constitution, regardless of personal price.

“And we are not easily intimidated,” he said.

During a speech in Arizona on Thursday, Biden criticized Trump for his attacks on Milley and lamented that “hardly any Republican called out such heinous statements.”

“The silence is deafening,” Biden said.

At Friday’s tribute to Milley at a military base in Virginia, Biden saluted the Pentagon’s top officer, for his steady hand and blunt talk.

“I’ve relied on Mark’s council because I know he always gives it to me straight, no matter what,” Biden said during a farewell tribute to Milley who retired from the military Friday. “He doesn’t hold anything back.”

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley was an unusually notable figure during his service for Biden and during the Trump administration as he navigated a number of crises, including the 2020 racial protests, the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Here’s a look at some of Milley’s most notable moments.

Retiring Chairman of the Joints Chiefs, Army General Mark Milley, reviews the troops during the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of Milley, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on September 29, 2023.
Retiring Chairman of the Joints Chiefs, Army General Mark Milley, reviews the troops during the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of Milley, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on September 29, 2023.

Lafayette Square walk with Trump for photo op

Milley delivered a mea culpa for creating a perception that the military was involved in domestic politics when he joined Donald Trump and other top administration officials on a walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op at historic St. John's Church after peaceful protesters were forcibly cleared from the area in 2020.

"I should not have been there," Milley said weeks later, when speaking at a National Defense University commencement ceremony.

As protests erupted in Washington, D.C. and across the nation after the police killing of George Floyd, law enforcement agents used pepper spray and other chemical irritants to clear protesters from the area near the White House ahead of Trump's walk to the church.

In this June 1, 2020 photo, President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church, in Washington. Walking behind Trump from left are, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley crafted a low public profile in his first eight months on the job, but that changed after “the walk.” Milley walked with Trump and the presidential entourage across Lafayette Square to be positioned near a church where Trump held up a Bible for photographers.

The photograph of Milley, in his camouflage combat uniform, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper walking along a path cleared of protesters by police and National Guard forces sparked outrage among retired military officials.

Milley considered resigning, according to multiple reports. Instead, he used the commencement address to apologize.

"My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics," he said. "As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it."

Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot

Milley resisted an effort to involve him in another political battle, according to his testimony to the congressional committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, wanted Milley’s help in spreading the message that Trump – and not Vice President Mike Pence – was the one trying to get the situation under control.

“He said, we have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions. We need to establish the narrative that, you know, that the president is still in charge and that things are steady or stable. Or words to that effect,” Milley testified. “I immediately interpret that as politics, politics, politics.”

Milley said he refused to comply with Meadows’ request.

The committee used Milley’s testimony to illustrate their point that Trump did not call on any part of the federal government – including deploying the National Guard or contacting the Pentagon – to respond to the attack as it unfolded.

“You’re the commander-in-chief. You’ve got an assault going on on the Capitol of the United States of America. And there’s nothing? No call? Nothing, Zero?” Milley said in an audio recording played by the committee.

Aftermath of 2020 election

In the last weeks of Trump’s presidency, Milley spoke with his Chinese counterpart to reassure him the U.S. would not suddenly attack China, according to a 2021 book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

After descriptions of the calls were revealed in the book, Milley defended his actions as “routine” and “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his job.

Milley said the calls were “generated by concerning intelligence that caused us to believe the Chinese were anticipating an attack by the United States” and he was told to diffuse the concerns.

When the incident got renewed attention in a recent profile of Milley, Trump accused the general of treason.

“This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Trump posted on Truth Social this month.

Milley said this week he'll take "appropriate measures" for his and his family's safety.

“I wish those comments had not been made, but they were,” he said in a “60 Minutes” interview. “And I'll take appropriate measures to ensure my safety and the safety of my family."

President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and retiring Chairman, Army General Mark Milley attend the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of Milley, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on September 29, 2023.
President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and retiring Chairman, Army General Mark Milley attend the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of Milley, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on September 29, 2023.

Afghanistan withdrawal

In testimony to the Senate in 2021, Milley unsuccessfully argued to Biden that some troops should remain in Afghanistan but did not publicly fault the president for his decision to withdraw even after Kabul’s government collapsed much faster than anticipated.

Milley, along with Biden and others, were forced to answer what led to such a chaotic withdrawal that included a suicide bomber killing 13 U.S. troops and at least 170 Afghans at the Kabul airport.

At a 2021 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Milley blamed the meltdown’s surprising speed on the Taliban having “failed to fully honor” its commitments under the peace agreement.

Military leaders also said the United States’ decision to withdraw military contractors doomed the Afghan military, which was built to be dependent on those networks for logistical and operational support.

“When you pull contractors, you pull troops. That, I think is one of many contributing factors to the rapid collapse. So that’s a big lesson,” Milley said, calling it one of several takeaways that should inform how the Pentagon approaches future wars.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mark Milley, in apparent Trump rebuke, calls him 'wannabe dictator'