The former top military officer of the country has stated that during the 2020 presidential cycle, he felt it necessary to publicly declare that the American armed forces would not interfere in any way in the electoral process.
In an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, Army Gen. Mark Milley, who recently finished his term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained why he took the unusual step in 2020 of stating multiple times that the American military would have “zero role” to play in that year’s presidential election.
“I was asked by Congress in testimony and members of Congress asked me in written questions about the role we would have and how we would be involved in the election,” Milley said.
“And it is clear that it is the American people who elect a president. And if that election is contested, it goes to the courts and they make decisions. And ultimately, it is certified by the representatives of the people in Congress. Nowhere along that line, not a single place, do you see intervention by the United States military,” he said.
As Gen. Mark Milley reflects on a turbulent four-year term, he is philosophical about his service under former President Donald Trump and resolute about an American ideal he claims he sought to defend. During his tenure, the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, provided support and training to Ukrainian forces, and faced challenges from an increasingly assertive China, but it was Milley’s actions during the 2020 election that could define his time in office.
Milley stated that his remarks about a politically neutral U.S. military were directed at both domestic and international audiences.
“I wanted to ensure that it was clear to the American people, to our adversaries, to our friends and allies abroad, and also to our own troops, that we have absolutely no role in U.S. electoral politics,” he said.
Milley also downplayed reports of repeated clashes with Trump during his term.
“Generals do not have clashes with presidents. I believe some of that is exaggerated, frankly, about clashes, like raised voices and arguments and all that stuff,” he said. “I provided advice to President Trump just as I provide advice to President Biden. I presented him with various courses of action and options.”
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to comment on a social media post by Trump last week in which he accused Milley of “treasonous” actions when he reached out to a Chinese military counterpart. In the post, Trump stated that in the past, the punishment for such behavior would be “death.”
“I will not respond to specific comments by former President Trump or anyone else. I am a public figure, and I will continue to defend the Constitution, period, full stop,” Milley said.
However, he defended the phone conversation with China’s top military officials, stating that it was intended to reassure Beijing that the U.S. remained stable after the 2020 election.
Defense Secretary Mike Esper “asked me to make a call, and we did that,” Milley said.
“So what the Chinese were perceiving was incorrect. They were concerned about potential political instability in this country. Secretary Esper asked me to ensure that they did not take any military action,” he said.
Milley also addressed the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. When asked if anyone should be held accountable for mistakes made during the pullout, the general said, “Well, if you mean has anyone been specifically punished in some way? No,” Milley said. “But look, Lester, that war did not end the way anyone wanted it to end. It was a 20-year war, and there were decisions made over those 20 years that led us to where we are.”
Regarding America’s adversaries, Milley stated that the Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this year failed to gather intelligence against U.S. targets, although he declined to provide further details. He acknowledged that China’s intelligence agencies are “very capable, very competent.”
Milley stated that he has no plans to write a tell-all book about his time in office. However, he did have a message for his successor and other members of the military: Public service free of partisan politics is both possible and essential.
“As the chairman, you must be nonpolitical and nonpartisan. You need to be informed and understand the environment in which you operate, but that does not mean you are political. It is different,” he said.