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 the president, during a national address – his last as the president’s top military advisor and the nation’s top general.
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, the embattled Army general 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.”
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 poised to trigger a government shutdown this 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 divisive, 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.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy appears to lack the votes to pass a last-ditch stopgap bill to extend government funding beyond Saturday.
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.”
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.”