Earlier this month, when the digital-media startup Puck celebrated its first anniversary with a bustling party at the French ambassador’s residence, the journalist-heavy throng in the Kalorama mansion was saluted by an unlikely guest speaker: the top officer in the United States military, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark A. Milley.
Officially, the event was a celebration of the First Amendment — the sort of gathering where you’d expect an address from a fight-the-power free-speech lawyer or a hell-raising investigative reporter, not a uniformed four-star general. But Milley’s lack of journalism credentials didn’t appear to bother many in the audience, who greeted him as a hero.
“Every single one of us in this country, the United States of America, has freedom of speech. We’ve got freedom of the press. We’ve got freedom of religion. We are free to assemble. We are free to protest against our government and redress any grievances,” Milley said, to cheers. “We in uniform are willing to die — to give our lives, our limbs, our eyesight, to ensure that that Constitution lives for the next generation.”
Photos snapped. Applause rang. Selfies were taken.
Milley had come to the soiree, according to his affable spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, because he was invited and saw an opportunity.
“I was invited to it and I heard it was a celebration of the First Amendment. In a non-D.C. political way, I thought he would really enjoy talking to a bunch of reporters about the constitution and the First Amendment, and he did,” Butler told me. “The reporters and the journalists that are part of democracy, as he says, could use hearing from the chairman of the joint chiefs just what we think of them.”
Want to read more stories like this? POLITICO Weekend delivers gripping reads, smart analysis and a bit of high-minded fun every Friday. Sign up for the newsletter.
By now, though, there’s not a lot of doubt about that, or of the converse.
Like Anthony Fauci, another unelected public sector lifer who became a bete noire of the far right, Milley has become a cause celebre in Washington, an icon of guardrail-respecting professionalism — and a presence around town. A few nights after the party at the French residence, I saw him posing for other pictures at the white-tie Gridiron dinner, an annual to-do for a rather more venerable class of media bigwigs. Scan POLITICO’s Playbook newsletter and you’ll find mention of him at shindigs like a New Year’s Day brunch at the home of the philanthropist Adrienne Arsht.
Where people outside the Pentagon ecosystem might not have been able to pick Milley’s immediate predecessors out of a lineup, Milley is the most famous Joint Chiefs chair since Colin Powell — and without an actual ongoing war to boost his profile. Like the politically savvy Powell, of course, he’s helped himself, especially when it comes to cultivating the folks who shape reputations. Reporters on the national security beat say he’s a blunt, intellectual and remarkably available source, particularly off the record. Veterans of the beat described Pentagon run-ins that turned into long, candid conversations.
Beyond the Pentagon media, he’s also been a ubiquitous presence in books about the late days of the Trump administration, where his perspective on the dramatic events (if not his direct quotes) have been exhaustively presented, right down to the resignation letters he drafted but never sent. Bestsellers by the likes of Bob Woodward as well as Susan Glasser (former editor of POLITICO) and Peter Baker depicted Milley as one of the responsible figures seeking to avert disasters as Donald Trump sought to hold office after losing an election — a time when many insiders feared the defeated commander-in-chief would launch wag-the-dog foreign operations or try to pull the military into his domestic schemes. Like a good Washington operator, his story got out with just enough plausible deniability.
But if Milley’s efforts to protect the military from political chaos are about a deep desire to preserve the pre-Trump, constitutional version of normal, the profile he cuts in Washington is a daily reminder of how far we are from that normal.
At a time of peace, it’s not normal for the senior general in the U.S. military to be famous. In a country where all military officers take an oath to the Constitution, it’s not normal for a general to come across as transgressive for praising that Constitution’s most famous amendment. And while the hero’s welcome accorded Milley in some circles isn’t especially common, the feelings about Milley at the opposite end of the spectrum are even more notable: It’s profoundly abnormal, in the annals of the modern American military, for a sitting general to attract the kind of partisan vitriol that Milley does.
Scan far-right Twitter and you’ll find doctored images of Milley as a Chinese military official or a bleached-haired pride parade participant. The bill of complaints ranges from leaking about Trump’s end-stage behavior to supporting a “woke” military, but the criticism is remarkably personal. Republican Rep. Paul Gosar called him a “traitor.”
“We get a lot of flak on social media, we get a lot of hate mail in the blogosphere. Although a lot are ad hominem attacks, they’re also attacks against the military,” says Butler. “People threaten his family, his family reads this stuff. On a personal side, it hurts too.”
And in the logic of 21st century America, the spectacle of MAGA types excoriating Milley only strengthens his appeal among MAGA’s enemies.
It’s almost hard to remember that Milley’s path to his current Beltway-star status began with an event that had almost the precise opposite political valence: His participation in Trump’s infamous march across Lafayette Square during the 2020 protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. The spectacle of the nation’s top general, clad in battle fatigues, taking part in a political show of force, was one of the most disastrous photo-ops in military history. At the time, it was Democrats and establishmentarians who screamed that the event had politicized the military — and pointed their fingers at Milley.
Almost immediately, Milley acknowledged that the critics were right. In a speech a few days later at the National Defense University, he declared unequivocally that, “I should not have been there.” He said the event created the impression that the military was involved in politics, something anathema to the American tradition. “It was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it,” he said. The address, in fact, went a lot further than a simple apology, as Milley discussed his own anger about Floyd’s killing, and ranged into America’s ugly racial history — including the military’s ongoing failures at promoting Black officers. “We all need to do better,” he said.
In a way, the subsequent two and a half years can be viewed as extensions of that speech. To critics, it’s a case of a general going outside his lane and trying to address political questions. But to admirers, it’s about being vocal in reassuring Americans that their military — and its top general — are not going to be used as political instruments.
For Milley, it was actually a familiar theme. His public reverence for the Constitution predates the crisis of 2020. His official portrait from his time as the Army Chief of Staff even shows him holding a copy of the document. But after Lafayette Square, the subject acquired a new political charge for reasons beyond his control.
“I think he’s done remarkably well,” says Duke University’s Peter Feaver, who studies civil-military relations and is close to the general, a former student. “He’s had an extraordinarily difficult set of challenges to navigate, and some of them are unprecedented in modern times.” Feaver rates Milley’s actions in 2020 as exemplary, and says the only legitimate criticism might be that we know about those actions at all, an indication that Milley either blabbed or allowed others to do so. But he says even that reflects deep-seated institutionalism. “I suspect there’s a bit of, ‘This was so crazy, the historical record needs to know this.’ So that the next person who’s facing similar challenges will not be taken by surprise.”
At any rate, it worked — perhaps better than intended, because in some circles Milley has gone from being in a hole to being on a pedestal.
Which is its own sort of problem. In America in 2023, even spreading the gospel of a non-politicized military is itself a political act, guaranteeing that Milley would make enemies.
Still, there’s a case that at least some of those enemies didn’t need to be antagonized — and were a function of communications missteps. Take Milley’s famous answer to a hearing question about antiracism at a 2021 hearing where he appeared alongside Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. After a hostile question about critical race theory, Milley took the mic and delivered a stirring, rather beautiful soliloquy about racism. The response went viral, appropriately so. Yet if the goal is keeping the military out of politics, it might have been better, for a uniformed officer, to clam up and let the political appointee answer the obviously political question.
Kori Schake, another former Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise Institute — and also someone who says Milley should be graded, like an Olympic diver, based on an extreme degree of difficulty — says the problem is that Milley, whom she calls well-intended, is not always such a savvy political operator after all.
“I worry that the way he’s done the job — not excusing himself from the Lafayette Square parade, volunteering his view on critical race theory when he wasn’t asked, which means now everybody else can be asked — opens other military leaders up to having to take a position on those issues,” Schake told me. “And positioning himself as somebody helping to land the plane safely, where the military’s role in disputed American elections is appropriately no role. … He’s made some choices that are institutionally not good for the role of the chairman or future chairmen’s relationship with their political superiors.”
Schake, who once worked for Powell, says that one takeaway from that earlier general’s public status was that, “every president has tried conscientiously to pick a chairman who was not like Colin Powell.” In that sense, she says, the blunders represent something good: “We should actually not want a military of adroit politicians. We should actually prefer the problems of a military that’s clumsy in navigating politics.”
Milley, of course, will be out of the Pentagon picture later this year: He’s due by law to retire by October, and the search for a successor is on. To some extent, the political charge around his office will leave with him, given that much of it — pro and con — is so very personal. But Feaver says the baggage means that the appointment will wind up being one of the most consequential of the Biden administration.
“It should be kind of a head-nod moment where Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Democrats on the Armed Services Committee nod their heads and say, yeah, yeah, that’s right,” Feaver says. “Rather than. ‘I’m going to pick the person most closely aligned with my policies,’ or some other kind of criteria that’s separate from just picking the military professional best prepared for this particular role. … If he missteps and picks someone that can be politicized from the get-go, if we get into a cycle, it’s a cycle that’s very hard to break.”
As for Milley, retirement could prove lucrative. Butler, his spokesman, says he won’t be writing a tell-all. But a book agent I spoke to, who has done a number of big Washington deals, tells me the general could get up to $1.5 million for a candid memoir — the kind of dollar figure that can change someone’s mind. The only catch: The biggest payday will come if he can spill some beans that weren’t already spilled in those Milley-centric histories of Trump’s final days.
( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )