General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Donald Trump, is set to end his 43-year career as an Army officer at the end of the month. In a new interview out Thursday, Milley recalls how the former president had several “disturbing” moments while in office, including questioning and criticizing the choice to have a disabled Army captain sing at a 2019 event.
A report from The Atlantic revealed Thursday that Milley had chosen Army captain Luis Avila, who is severely wounded after serving in five combat tours, to sing “God Bless America” at the 2019 Armed Forces Welcome Ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall because, to him and several other Army generals, Avila represented the dignity, strength and sacrifice of wounded soldiers. Avila had lost a leg in an IED attack while serving in Afghanistan in 2011 and suffered two strokes, two heart attacks and brain damage as a result of his injuries.
After Trump went over to congratulate the captain for his performance, the then-president asked Milley, who as JCS chairman served as Trump’s principal military adviser, within earshot of others, “Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.” He also told Milley to never let Avila make a public appearance again.
“These sorts of moments, which would grow in intensity and velocity, were disturbing to Milley. As a veteran of multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had buried 242 soldiers who’d served under his command,” The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg writes. “Milley’s family venerated the military, and Trump’s attitude toward the uniformed services seemed superficial, callous, and, at the deepest human level, repugnant.”
Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, in addition to other former Trump administration officials, has also argued that the former president has such a contempt for the military that it made it challenging to explain concepts of honor, sacrifice and duty. That sour view of the armed forces, alongside Trump being unfit to serve as president among other points of contention, made Milley’s first 16 months as chairman far more difficult than he anticipated.
“For more than 200 years, the assumption in this country was that we would have a stable person as president,” retired three-star general James Dubik, one of the general’s mentors, told the Atlantic, adding that that assumption not holding water during the Trump administration presented Milley with a “unique challenge.”
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Despite that difficulty, Milley — who Trump himself has accused of committing treason for his defense of the Constitution before and after the 2020 election and aversion of Trump’s urgings to ignore or commit war crimes — refrained from commenting publicly on the former president’s “cognitive unfitness and moral derangement” during his presidency, according to the outlet. He would instead dodge the question in interviews, noting that he believes it’s not appropriate for the nation’s flag officers to discuss the performance of its civilian leaders.
Milley’s true views on the then-president did make their way into a range of books, written by authors who had spoken with him and other civilian and military officials on background, after Trump left office. In “The Divider,” authors Peter Baker and Susan Glasser note that Milley considered Trump to be “shameful” and “complicit” in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. They also reported that the JCS chairman feared that the former president’s “‘Hitler-like’ embrace of the big lie about the election would prompt the president to seek out a ‘Reichstag moment.'”
Those perspectives mirrored that of several administration officials who spoke out against Trump, including Kelly, who called him the “most flawed person” he has ever met. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, considered the former president a “f—cking moron,” while James Mattis, a retired Marine general and the first secretary of defense for the Trump administration, has told friends and peers that he was “more dangerous than anyone could ever imagine.” It is also widely known that Trump’s second secretary of defense, Mark Esper, found that the former president not only didn’t understand his own duties, but didn’t comprehend the oath that officers swear to the Constitution, U.S. history or military ethics.
“Mark Milley had to contain the impulses of people who wanted to use the United States military in very dangerous ways,” Kelly told the Atlantic. “Mark had a very, very difficult reality to deal with in his first two years as chairman, and he served honorably and well. The president couldn’t fathom people who served their nation honorably.”