Top US General Mark Milley appeared before Congress this week to defend Pentagon decision making in Afghanistan but instead found himself fighting a personal battle with lawmakers who charged that he has been more preoccupied with rehabilitating and burnishing his own image.
Republican lawmakers directed their fury at Milley for his cooperation with a number of reporters whose recent books about the Trump administration painted a damning portrait of the former President’s final months in office, and for the revelation that Milley reassured his Chinese counterpart after intelligence revealed Beijing was worried former President Donald Trump might launch an attack.
As Republicans seized on the reports to accuse Milley of violating the chain of command and denigrating the former President, hearings that were meant to examine military and policy missteps in Afghanistan instead devolved at times into a battle between Milley and lawmakers about whether he had become a political actor — a suggestion the four-star general emphatically pushed back on.
“I’m concerned that there’s mischaracterizations of me becoming very politicized as an individual and that it’s my willingness to become politicized, which is not true,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. “I am trying to stay apolitical, and I believe I am.”
The subject is fraught for Milley, who was in danger of having his standing undermined by a now-notorious June 2020 photo op when he stood beside Trump at Lafayette Square after troops violently cleared protestors from the small park in front of the White House.
Milley apologized in the wake of that event, acknowledging that his participation, particularly while in uniform, violated the sacrosanct military ethos of avoiding political activity.
“I have done my best to remain personally apolitical, and to try to keep the military out of actual domestic politics, and I made a point of that from the time I became the Chairman and especially beginning last summer,” Milley said, in an apparent reference to the Lafayette Square event.
As with the Senate Armed Services hearing on Tuesday, some Republican lawmakers used their limited speaking time Wednesday to castigate Milley for spending time over the year since the damaging photo op engaging with writers whose books about the Trump administration paint the general as a champion of democracy and American institutions.
One lawmaker directly accused the four-star general of being more preoccupied with his image than winning wars, while others criticized him for disclosing consequential information to members of the media rather than Congress.
‘Insider Washington books’
“You’re far more interested in what your perception is and how people think about you in insider Washington books, than you care about winning, which this group seems incapable of doing,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, said Wednesday about Milley and his colleagues at the hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and head of US Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie.
In his opening remarks ahead of both hearings, Milley specifically addressed new reporting in “Peril,” a book by veteran Watergate journalist Bob Woodward and Washington Post reporter Robert Costa that details the military leader’s phone conversations to reassure a nervous Chinese general and his efforts to limit then-President Trump from potentially ordering a dangerous military strike.
Milley’s actions, which were reported by CNN and others earlier this month ahead of the book’s release, drew sharp criticism from Trump and his allies, including calls for Milley’s resignation and that he be tried for treason.
The top US general offered a full-throated defense of his actions on Tuesday and Wednesday, telling lawmakers the call with the Chinese official was not only appropriate but that numerous senior Trump officials were aware it occurred. That did not curtail the criticism.
“You chose to talk to reporters instead of us, and that’s of great concern,” said Rep. Mike Turner, citing Milley’s efforts to assuage China’s concern. “No one in Congress knew that one of two of the major nuclear powers thought that they were perhaps being threatened for attack,” the Ohio Republican added.
Some went so far as to accuse Milley of violating his chain of command — even though he had testified that he was reflecting the former President’s intent and that Trump administration officials were apprised of the calls.
“These are two great powers, and I am doing my best to transmit the president’s intent, President Trump’s intent, to ensure that the American people are protected from an incident that could escalate,” Milley said Wednesday.
“I understand your intent,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican, adding that she still thought it was “worthy of your resignation.”
“I’m not going to tip off any enemy to what the United States is going to do in an actual plan,” Milley shot back. “What I’m trying to do is persuade an adversary, that’s heavily armed, that was clearly and unambiguously, according to intelligence reports, very nervous about our behavior and what was happening inside this country, and they were concerned that we, President Trump, was gonna launch an attack. He was not going to launch an attack.”
“At the direction of the Secretary of Defense, I engaged the Chinese in order to persuade them,” Milley said.
Milley also pushed back on criticism about his interactions with the press, including Woodward, telling lawmakers he did not regret speaking to the Washington Post reporter despite acknowledging concerns the book may mischaracterize him as being willing to “become politicized.”
“I think that it’s important for me to speak to the media,” he said, adding at another point that, “I believe that part of my job is to communicate to the media. What we do as a government, what we do as a military, to explain to the people.”
But Milley’s remarks did little to quell the outrage of certain Republicans who accused the chairman of attempting to rehabilitate his image and doing so at the expense of national security.”It seems to me that you put a high priority on making sure that you were favorably portrayed by the DC press corps, you spent a lot of time doing that,” Sen. Josh Hawley said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Hawley, a Missouri Republican who has faced significant criticism for his actions on January 6 and his comments downplaying the attack on the Capitol in the months since, then suggested Milley prioritized efforts to fix his own public image rather than focusing on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and called for him to resign.
Gaetz, who is one of Trump’s most outspoken allies in Congress, launched a more pointed attack against Milley Wednesday, eliciting a stern response from the top US general.
“You spent more time with Bob Woodward on this book than you spent analyzing the very likely prospect that the Afghanistan Government was going to fall immediately to the Taliban, didn’t you,” Gaetz charged.
“Not even close, Congressman,” Milley answered.
Gaetz continued on, telling Milley, “we’re not questioning your personal conduct, we’re questioning in your official capacity, going and undermining the chain of command, which is obviously what you did.”
“I did not undermine the chain of command,” Milley responded.
Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat and Air Force veteran, apologized after Gaetz’s tirade and tried to steer the hearing back to questions of substance. She thanked the military leaders for the “opportunity to ask important questions of you, questions that ought to be asked of you in the spirit of our responsibility of oversight, rather than provocation.”
Apologies and visible frustration
The continued attacks on Milley’s dealings with the press appeared to wear on some members as the hearing progressed.
The panel’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, appeared visibly frustrated and at one point, let out an audible sigh that seemed to encapsulate his feelings about the attack levied by his Republican colleagues. At the end of another round of questioning about Milley’s interactions with book authors, Smith muttered, “that was helpful.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican, also apologized to Milley for Republicans who questioned him during Wednesday’s hearing and applauded his actions related to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, noting it was “the first time in our nation’s history that we did not have a peaceful transfer of power.”
“General Milley, you found yourself in your constitutionally prescribed role, standing in the breach. And for any member of this committee, for any American, to question your loyalty to our nation, to question your understanding of our Constitution, your loyalty to our Constitution, your recognition and understanding of the civilian chain of command, is despicable,” Cheney said.
“I want to apologize for those members of this committee,” she added.
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