On June 1, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was instructed to accompany President Trump and some cabinet and White House officials on what he assumed was a visit to National Guard troops deployed near the White House. The general wore camouflage fatigues, a break from the tradition of not donning combat uniforms in the White House. In a picture taken en route, the president, General Milley, and other senior officials are seen walking through an area that had just been cleared, violently, of peaceful protesters, to make way for a presidential photo op.
It was a setup. General Milley was unaware that protesters had been dispersed with tear gas, and it is worth investigating why he showed up at the White House in battle fatigues. We do not know the reason, but given how unusual this is, Milley should answer for it. When the president’s intent became apparent, General Milley withdrew. His absence from a subsequent photo on the steps of St. John’s Church is notable. He should have known better than to participate in such an overtly political display in the first place. For that, he apologized. During remarks to a class of graduating officers, he said, “I should not have been there.” He reaffirmed the military’s apolitical nature, and stressed the need to maintain “a keen sense of situational awareness.”
For many veterans, the use of that term was striking. Situational awareness, or “SA,” is a ubiquitous phrase in the military. It refers to the importance of staying vigilant when engaged in high-risk, high-threat activities. As a young Navy pilot, every training flight I flew was graded, and included this criterion: “SNA [student naval aviator] maintains situational awareness.” That the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would apply this term to a walk with the president is astonishing. But it fits. Sadly, the White House has become a threat-rich environment for our uniformed leaders.
At its core, the military is conditioned to be nonpartisan. For three and a half years, it has accepted the president’s insults, saluted smartly, and obeyed. Even when Donald Trump minimized the sacrifices of those in uniform, pardoned war criminals convicted by military juries, and abandoned allies fighting alongside U.S. troops, the military took it on the chin. At every turn, it has done its best to respect the primacy of civilian control.
That contract, which has survived every president since Lincoln, is now broken. As protests swept the nation, Donald Trump called upon governors to deploy national guard troops to “dominate the streets.” If they failed to do so, the president said he would “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” For General Milley, President Trump’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act was a bridge too far. And it provoked some of America’s most revered generals and admirals to speak out.
James Mattis, the retired Marine general who resigned quietly as secretary of defense in 2019 after the president abandoned key U.S. allies, delivered this rebuke: “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
For Mattis, the final straw was not the dishonor Trump brought upon the military, but the threat to turn it against his fellow citizens. Mattis’s voice joins a chorus of others. Generals Powell, McChrystal, McCaffrey, Hayden, and Allen, and Admirals Mullen and McRaven have warned about the dangers this president poses to the nation. These retired officers command enormous respect within the military, and their influence cascades downwards.
If America is to survive the next few months without the military shedding civilian blood, the example set by these leaders is essential. But there is a hidden signal, one that concerns the preservation of democracy itself. By reminding those in uniform that their loyalty lies with the Constitution, and not with the current occupant of the White House, the military’s leadership has affirmed that it will stand with the American people through the ultimate test—the peaceful transition of power.
Since the Civil War, our nation has never had to worry about this. Now, we have a president who openly flirts with the idea of staying in office beyond his constitutionally allowed term. At a fundraising event, he said this about Chinese Premier Xi Jinping: “He’s now president for life. . . . I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” On a separate occasion, he said that he would like to remain president for “at least for 10 or 14 years.”
While such instances may have been poor attempts at humor, Donald Trump’s assaults on the integrity of our elections are no joking matter. He is laying the groundwork to delegitimize any unfavorable outcome, claiming that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud in November. He supports policies that result in massive voter suppression, as was recently seen in Georgia’s primary election. Until the generals spoke out, it seemed President Trump was attempting to set the stage to remain in power even if the majority of Americans wanted him gone.
He seems to have received the generals’ message, at least for now. Last week, President Trump stated that he would leave peacefully if Joe Biden wins. There is always a danger that he will purge anyone he deems disloyal, including those in positions of military authority. And the question remains open about what National Guard units might do. They follow separate chains of command, typically reporting to governors. Trump might call upon political allies to activate these units to defend his presidency, as he did to quell protests. Let’s hope not.
It seems unlikely that any governor would deploy guardsmen against active-duty military units, merely to defend a defeated president. To be sure, many in uniform still support him. Though his approval within the military is astonishingly low for a Republican in the midst of a national crisis, many will surely vote for him. The military as an institution, however, has made clear that it will not tolerate turning against American citizens, or undermining the Constitution.
It should not have come to this.
When active-duty forces become democracy’s last line of defense, something fundamental has failed. The inability of civilian officials to effectively counter the president’s assault on our Constitution will reverberate for generations. At this critical moment, where were Secretaries Esper and Pompeo, or the cabal of obsequious Republican senators? Their dereliction of duty means America may have to depend on its least democratic institution to rescue democracy itself.
In an extraordinary memo sent last week to every service chief, General Milley wrote: “Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the value embedded within it. . . . Please remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation.” To the typed memo, he added this by hand: “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America—we will stay true to that oath and the American people.”
In the moments leading up to his walk with the president, General Milley’s situational awareness may have lapsed. But in the aftermath, the military expressed loud and clear where its ultimate loyalty lies, and communicated that throughout the chain of command. If voters in November elect a new commander-in-chief, Donald Trump may indeed have another photo op with a general at his side. But this time, that officer will, perhaps, have a firm grip on the former president’s elbow, escorting him from the White House.