War Stories

How Much of the Latest Trump vs. the Military Story Is Image Laundering?

Milley is in the corner in military fatigues.
Donald Trump walks with William Barr, Mark T. Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley , and others from the White House to visit St. John’s Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

A few hours before Monday’s news flash about the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-lago, and just when we thought we’d already absorbed all the leaks and scoops about Donald Trump that your mind could absorb, along came another round of eye-blinkers, these from a book by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker excerpted in this week’s New Yorker.

The highlights: Trump screamed at his generals (he addressed them as “you fucking generals”) for not being “totally loyal” to him, like the German generals were to Hitler. While planning a military parade (which wound up never happening), he told his staff he didn’t want any injured soldiers to take part, saying, “It doesn’t look good for me.” After firing a few of his top aides, who’d occasionally talked back to his orders, Trump said, “I don’t give a shit anymore, I want a yes-man.”

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But most of the excerpt is given over to a glorification of Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is portrayed as the main source of resistance to Trump’s assault on American democracy. We’ve seen this before, in Peril, the final volume of Bob Woodward’s Trump trilogy (co-authored by Robert Costa). The account by Glasser and Baker is more credible, in that they quote reliable witnesses—former defense secretary Robert Gates, Rep. Adam Smith, and Sen. Angus King—confirming key aspects of Milley’s tale. (Woodward never identifies sources, but Milley is clearly the source of his stories about Milley; most of his books’ heroes are the characters who cooperate with him most fully.)

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Still, much about the Glasser-Baker portrait of Milley raises questions as well. (They may be raised and answered in their full book, The Divider, which is out Sept. 20 and which I haven’t yet read.)

In the Woodward-Costa book, Milley takes credit for taking unusual, even subversive, steps to ensure that Trump couldn’t launch a nuclear strike without consulting him first—and for phoning his Chinese counterpart to calm fears during a particularly tense moment. But in fact, he did nothing to alter normal nuclear-launch procedures, and it was Secretary of Defense Mark Esper who (appropriately) made the crucial call to Beijing. (Click here for the details.)

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The most remarkable item in the Glasser-Baker portrait is the full reproduction of a long letter of resignation that Milley wrote a week after Trump’s June 1, 2020, photo op outside the church on Lafayette Square, after Black Lives Matter protesters had just been violently removed by national guard and federal officers. It’s a harsh letter. Among the harshest passages:

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I can no longer faithfully support and execute your orders… you [are] doing great and irreparable harm to my country… you have made a concerted effort over time to politicize the United States military…to create fear in the minds of the people… you don’t hold those values dear to the cause that I serve… you’re ruining the international order and causing significant damage to our country overseas… In fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fight against.

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But here’s the thing: Milley never sent this letter. In fact, Glasser and Baker note that this was merely one of several drafts of a resignation letter—the others were shorter (and, I would guess, less contentious). Had he resigned, would he have sent this one? Given the reluctance of many officers—active-duty or retired—to reproach the commander-in-chief in public, and given the paucity of evidence that Milley ever confronted Trump so directly in private, I doubt it. This was probably his getting-it-out-of-my-system draft—meant to be saved for the personal files, then deleted.

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Milley’s turn against Trump isn’t pure fantasy. He did deliver an honorable commencement speech at the National Defense University on June 20, apologizing for being at the photo op, supporting “peaceful protest” (which Trump wanted to put down with bullets), touting the military’s “apolitical” creed, and urging the graduates to “embrace the Constitution.” (I was surprised at the time—Milley probably was too—that Trump didn’t fire him for that.)

Glasser and Baker also quote a few sources, on the record, who recall Milley asking their advice, around this time, on whether he should resign. The most cogent advice came from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told him not to resign unless he could bring the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff along with: Milley resigning would be a one-day story, but all of the top generals and admirals threatening to quit—that would be a potent way to sway Trump away from craziness at a dangerous moment. We have heard in the January 6 hearings that Trump’s legal advisers lined up their pins in precisely this way—getting the pledge of every assistant attorney general to resign en masse if Trump replaced acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen with his minion, Jeffrey Clark. But a question remains: Did Milley try to sway the other chiefs to mount a similar rebellion in a moment of severe crisis? If so, it’s not reported here.

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There’s a common tendency among senior U.S. officials to stay at their job, even in compromising situations, on the grounds that any successor would make matters worse. Sometimes they’re right; more often, they’re exaggerating their own importance or making excuses not to resign in protest, a step that could hurt them by making them seem like less than team players in subsequent job-hunts. Which was true of Milley? He and Esper seem to have boosted each other’s morale through daily pep talks and whatever collusions they could manage. But what effect did they have? It’s unclear. Esper was eventually fired for disputing Trump too often. Milley had little sway within the White House and was distrusted by the leadership on Capitol Hill. Would he have had more impact, had he resigned and signed the long, brutal resignation letter?

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It is, in some ways, annoying to watch so many of Trump’s former aides testifying at the January 6 hearings about his horrible misdeeds. Where were they when the nation needed them, back before the election or during Trump’s second impeachment trial? Many of these come-lately heroes would have remained quiet, had they not been subpoenaed. Several of them would probably still be working for Trump if he had won the election.

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Milley was, and is, in a tougher spot than those other officials. U.S. military officers abide by a firm ethos of civilian control. They are taught to obey all lawful orders and are reluctant to make judgments for themselves on which orders might be unlawful. Orders from the commander-in-chief are particularly sacrosanct. Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes it a crime, punishable by court-martial, for an officer to say, publish, or circulate “contemptuous words” toward the president (and several other top officials), even if those words are true. Very few officers have been tried for this offense; and the military’s Manual for Courts-Martial notes that mere “adverse criticism” of the president, “in the course of a political discussion,” is exempt from Article 88. Still, military culture and military law stiffen an officer’s hesitation to steer clear of political rebellion—and for good reason.

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Nonetheless, Milley is now working overtime to dissociate himself from Trump as much as possible and thus rehabilitate his reputation. At least Milley did speak out a bit, to the degree he felt he could, while still on his job. Glasser and Baker pour heaps of scorn on Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, for not attempting to do the same. Pompeo acted like a lapdog on the job, serving as Trump’s mouthpiece, letting foreign service officers suffer under Trump’s thumb, remotely delivering a speech for the 2020 Republican National Convention from the U.S. embassy in Israel, and amid Trump’s charges of a “stolen” election saying, “There will be a smooth transition—to a second Trump administration.” Now he tries to tell Glasser and Baker that he worked, often alongside Milley and Esper, to counter the “crazies” who had taken over the White House. Maybe he did, but his failure to speak out publicly—either then or now—is particularly appalling.

Still, judging from the excerpt, the Glasser-Baker book is probably a good read. Then, of course, Maggie Haberman, the most seasoned Trump chronicler, has her 600-page tome, Confidence Man, coming out in October. And as the Trump scandal machine keeps churning—the Jan 6 revelations, the Mar-A-Lago raid this week, who knows what curveball next week—all of these authors will need to write afterwords, if not wholly revised chapters, for the paperback editions.

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