Opinion: Milley acted to prevent Trump from creating a disaster. But don’t expect future generals to save us.
In July, Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker released a book that revealed Gen. Mark A. Milley had been worried about the possibility that President Donald Trump, during his final days in office, would issue dangerous or illegal orders.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff compared the then-president to “the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose,” and warned, “This is a Reichstag moment.” “They may try, but they’re not going to f--king succeed,” Milley reportedly told his deputies. “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.”
Now comes another book, this one written by The Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, who reveal that Milley wasn’t just worried about Trump staging a coup. He was also worried about the president initiating a war with China. So worried, in fact, that Milley twice called China’s senior general and assured him that the U.S. military wasn’t planning to attack.
Woodward and Costa also report that Milley was so concerned about Trump launching a nuclear strike that he told senior commanders to keep him in the loop even though under the law the president doesn’t actually need to consult the chairman of the Joint Chiefs before deploying nuclear weapons. Milley knew he was “pulling a Schlesinger” — acting as Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger had in August 1974 to prevent President Richard M. Nixon from starting a war — but felt he had no choice.
The two books paint a consistent picture of a president who was judged a clear and present danger to U.S. national security by his own top general. Milley should be commended for acting to limit an unhinged commander in chief’s ability to overthrow the government or start a war.
But while Trump critics will see Milley as the hero of this story, Woodward and Costa’s reporting will be viewed very differently on the right. Trump and his followers have already been fulminating against “woke generals.” After Milley defended the teaching of critical race theory at the U.S. Military Academy, Fox “News” host Tucker Carlson called him a “pig” and Trump demanded he resign. Following the release of the Leonnig/Rucker book, Trump claimed that “Milley choked like a dog” when he apologized for accompanying Trump on his infamous walk through Lafayette Square after police had cleared it of peaceful demonstrators. After Tuesday’s news about the Woodward/Costa book, right-wingers have already suggested that Milley was guilty of plotting a coup, engaged in treason and should be fired, court-martialed or even executed. If only they showed half as much outrage about the conduct that twice got Trump impeached.
Milley had no choice but to do what he did, but his actions will further enrage the right and widen the divide between the military and the Republican Party. If Trump or a Trump loyalist comes into power in 2024 or 2028, expect a purge of officers who are deemed loyal to the Constitution rather than to the president and the Republican Party.
There is, alas, no shortage of right-wing extremists in the military. See, for example, a supposed resignation letter from an Army lieutenant colonel named Paul Douglas Hague that has ricocheted around the Internet in recent days. The Defense Department already mandates 17 different vaccinations for various personnel. But Hague was said to have resigned to avoid taking a vaccine for covid-19, ludicrously claiming that it signified a “Marxist takeover of the military and the United States government.”
There is absolutely nothing stopping Trump or some other future Republican president from appointing someone with far-right views such as Hague’s as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In other words, we cannot count on future generals resisting a power-mad, would-be authoritarian in the Oval Office as Milley did.
There is no obvious legislative fix that would stop the president from ordering the military to launch a coup — we are dependent on the devotion of the armed forces to the Constitution to forestall that nightmare — but it is possible to prevent the president from starting a nuclear war for political purposes.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation to prohibit the president from a first use of nuclear weapons unless Congress has declared war. That would still allow a president to respond to a nuclear attack but would take off the table the kind of “wag the dog” scenario that so worried Milley. Other experts have proposed going even further by mandating that any presidential nuclear order would have to be ratified by the next two people in the line of presidential succession, normally the vice president and House speaker.
It is imperative for Congress to pass some such limitations on the president’s nuclear-use authority before another unhinged president takes office. We suffered badly enough under Trump; 400,000 Americans died of covid-19 while he was in office and insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol. Yet it could have been far worse — and could still be in the future if we don’t act today.