Former President Donald Trump’s allies in Congress are planning to use congressional investigations to put the spotlight on one of his most prominent critics — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley — should Republicans take control of the House in November’s midterms, say six people familiar with the plans.
The plans include launching multiple lines of oversight that would position Republicans to grill Milley. They would cover the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, criticism that the military has become too “woke” during Milley’s tenure, and questions about military readiness that would focus on how he’s spending his time.
“For our members, he is a big lightning rod,” said a Republican familiar with the House GOP plans. “Republicans want answers on a lot of things, and Mark Milley, because of his position and public comments, including in books, is the person to answer.”
Milley has also been vilified by conservative media personalities like Tucker Carlson of Fox News, who has called him “stupid” and “a pig” and accused him of treason. And one Republican House candidate called for Milley to be executed on live television.
Over the past year, according to U.S. defense officials, Milley has received dozens of death threats from Trump supporters.
The officials said threats against Milley began after he defended a course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point involving critical race theory by arguing that leaders need to understand different viewpoints and invoking the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white,” Milley said during congressional testimony last June. “So, what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out.”
Since President Joe Biden took office, Milley has been cast in several books about the Trump administration as a sharp critic of the former president.
In the books, for which Milley did hours of interviews, he is cited as defying some of Trump’s orders and comparing his actions to those of Hitler.
Two defense officials said Milley is aware of the GOP plans to investigate his actions, though he isn’t taking any additional steps to prepare for the oversight. The officials said such investigations could escalate threats against him, as well as other military leaders.
A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the Pentagon would be part of investigations if the GOP wins in November, and the top Republicans on the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees have requested that the Biden administration preserve documents relating to the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“If House Republicans are entrusted with the majority, we will conduct thorough oversight of the Biden administration’s actions and that includes those of the Department of Defense,” Mark Bednar said.
Some of Trump’s congressional allies view Milley’s criticisms of the former president, including that Trump was in mental decline and irreparably harming the country, as insubordinate and disrespectful of the commander in chief he was supposed to serve, according to Republicans familiar with the plans for the investigations.
They plan to argue that Milley was contemptuous and trying to seize Trump’s military authority or powers, they said.
“President Trump was his boss, his commander in chief, and Milley was his subordinate. Milley’s role is to provide his military advice and then carry out his orders, not undermine the president when he disagreed with him,” according to a second Republican familiar with the plans.
In “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Milley is quoted as telling aides he was concerned Trump would stage a coup after the 2020 election, referring to Hitler and saying, “This is a Reichstag moment.”
Milley was similarly cast as a critic of Trump in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book “Peril.” In it, Milley is quoted as telling former first lady Michelle Obama at Biden’s January inauguration, which Trump did not attend, that while she couldn’t see it behind his mask, “No one has a bigger smile today than I do.”
On Afghanistan, Republicans plan to press Milley on two aspects of the U.S. withdrawal: his role in shaping the conditions for the troops to leave, and whether he did enough to prepare for the effort, according to the Republicans familiar with the planning.
Joint Staff spokesperson Col. Dave Butler said the Joint Staff “welcome further review of Afghanistan, adding that the Pentagon “recently completed an after-action review and we are going to fully cooperate with Congress’ Commission on Afghanistan.”
He said the chairman has not been contacted by any member of Congress about any pending testimony or new questions, saying “he considers it his responsibility to keep our lawmakers informed.”
“The chairman has answered every single question by any member of Congress either in person or in writing,” Butler said. “He has answered hundreds of written questions, he’s testified dozens of times in closed, classified sessions, and publicly. He has never refused a request from Congress to testify.”
‘Fight from the inside’
The GOP planning comes amid growing concern about politicization of the U.S. military, and investigations seen as targeting Milley could fuel those concerns. Eight former defense secretaries and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently warned in an open letter of political polarization's effect on the military. Milley has already been at the center of the issue — viewed as both a contributor to polarization and a victim of it.
A new course at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, will examine whether Milley’s actions as chairman as portrayed in the books about the Trump administration have violated the norms that govern civil-military relations and further politicized the military.
In “The Divider: Trump in the White House,” by reporters Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Milley is quoted as saying in the final year of Trump’s presidency that he would “fight from the inside” against what he saw as an increasingly erratic commander in chief. A person close to Milley said that while it is accurate the chairman said he would “fight” Trump from within, he meant he would push back on issues and provide advice and counsel even when it was contrary to the president’s views.
Another instance where Milley is criticized as violating military norms is his decision, while dressed in combat fatigues, to walk with Trump from the White House across Lafayette Square, which had just been aggressively cleared of Black Lives Matter protesters. Milley later apologized to members of the military for being there.
Others defend Milley, saying his assignment as chairman — he was tapped for the role by Trump in 2018 — was a difficult one that required extraordinary actions, and that he did not violate civil-military relations.
“He was not defying the president,” said Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University who focuses on civil-military relations. “He was doing what was expected of him even though it seems he was thinking about the president in a certain way.”
A former U.S. military official who worked with Milley during his time as chairman said Milley acted fully within his role as adviser to the president while Trump was in the Oval Office.
“He provided his best military advice to the president and nothing I have seen indicates that he violated any civil-military norms,” the former official said. “Now he’s going to be dragged in front of Congress to answer questions about policy and service decisions that don’t even fall under his authorities.”
U.S. military officials also expressed concern that Trump allies are taking aim at the military as an institution they think has become “woke,” and targeting Pentagon leaders who’ve been in position as the agency implemented some controversial policies, like requiring Covid vaccines for all troops and civilians.
“The military is not woke, whatever that actually means,” one U.S. military official said. Referring to Milley, the official said, “If there are investigations on these claims, you have to wonder what the intention here is. Is it to smear a man with 43 years of service or is it to damage our military? It’s probably going to do both.”
The Republicans familiar with the investigations planning said the effort to force Milley to answer questions about his decisions and comments is part of Congress’ oversight obligations under the Constitution and is aimed at holding the Defense Department leadership accountable.
“It’s about not him as a guy,” the first Republican familiar with the plans said of Milley. “It’s about the decisions he’s made and the things he’s said.”