Gen. Milley key to military continuity in Biden administration's transition

Robert Burns
Associated Press

Washington — In taking charge of a Pentagon battered by leadership churn, the Biden administration will look to one holdover as a source of military continuity: Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

President-elect Joe Biden will inherit Milley as his senior military adviser, and although Biden could replace Milley, he likely won’t.

A Princeton-educated history buff with the gift of gab, Milley has been a staunch defender of the military’s apolitical tradition even as President Donald Trump packed the Pentagon with political loyalists. Milley reassured Congress that the military would stay out of the elections and, in no uncertain terms, told troops that the Capitol riot was an act of sedition. Last summer, he put his own job on the line by apologizing for being part of the entourage that accompanied Trump to a photo-op outside a church near the White House after peaceful protesters were forcibly removed from the area.

In this March 4, 2020, file photo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testifies to Senate Armed Services Committee about the budget on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Military leaders always have critical roles in ensuring stability from one administration to the next. But Milley will be especially important for continuity after a delayed, rocky postelection transition and uncertainty about when the Senate will confirm top Pentagon nominees.

Milley, 62, is early in the second year of a four-year term as the military’s top officer. His predecessor, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, now retired, was a similarly transitional figure, appointed by President Barack Obama and continuing for nearly three years with Trump.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs does not command troops but advises a president and a secretary of defense on approaches to major military problems.

Biden will have many problems from the get-go, including Iran and North Korea. In addition to dealing with potential military crises, Biden would look to Milley, along with his prospective secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, for advice on broader strategic goals, including pursuing arms control with Russia, countering terrorism in the Mideast and competing with China.

Milley is not shy about taking charge.

He loves to talk, often relying on his deep knowledge of military history, occasionally personalizing his point, never reluctant to assert his view. Milley speaks reverently of his father, a veteran of the Pacific theater of World War II, and worriedly of America’s vulnerability to space-based warfare, which he says could bring on the next Pearl Harbor.

A Massachusetts native, Milley was commissioned as an armor officer in 1980 and rose to become Army chief of staff 35 years later. When Trump announced him as his choice to be Joint Chiefs chairman nearly a year before Dunford’s term expired, he called Milley a “great gentleman” and outstanding soldier.

By June 2020, however, Milley seemed at risk of being fired; he privately opposed Trump’s talk of invoking the Insurrection Act to put active-duty troops in the streets of the nation’s capital to counter protests sparked by the killing by Minneapolis police of a Black man, George Floyd.

Milley also expressed public regret at being part of a Trump entourage that strolled across Lafayette Square on June 1 to be positioned near a church where Trump held up a Bible for photographers.

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Biden should not see Milley as tainted by Trump.

“If Biden wants to send some messages about reconciliation and bipartisan cooperation, working closely with Milley … wouldn’t be a bad place to start,” O’Hanlon said.