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'The military has no role' in politics, says retiring chair of the Joint Chiefs

Mark Milley, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Mark Milley, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Army General Mark Milley, the nation's most senior military officer, has retired after 43 years of service.

At midnight on Saturday, he turned over his post as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

His four years in that role were defined by a seemingly non-stop series of challenges. There was the end of the 20-year-long U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, rising tensions with China, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

There was also an American president with little regard for the norms that have historically separated politics from the U.S. military.

Perhaps the most contentious moment was when Milley appeared alongside then-President Donald Trump, wearing his combat fatigues, in a political photo-op on Lafayette Square during the racial justice protests in 2020. Milley later apologized.

Gen. Mark Milley (right) appears with then President Trump as he departs the White House en route to St. John's Church in June 2020.
Patrick Semansky / AP
Gen. Mark Milley (right) appears with then President Trump as he departs the White House en route to St. John's Church in June 2020.

This interview between Milley and All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly begins by discussing that day on Lafayette Square.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: How close, General Milley, did we come to the American military being deployed against the American people?

Mark Milley: I would just say that the United States military stayed out of actual politics. And I think that's an important distinction. Marching behind the president, bad optics, bad image, clearly — and I knew that, you know, within 90 seconds, walked away from it, and then later tried to make amends on that. But having said that, that is not the same, by the way, as entering into politics. Now, you asked me how close, but there's no role for the U.S. military there.

Kelly: But President Trump, as the elect — he was elected and he wanted active duty military in the streets of American cities to suppress the protests, he was the commander in chief.

Milley: He very well could have ordered that. He didn't order it. So that's an important distinction as well. So what I'm telling you is that the military has no role — zero — in actual electoral policy, or politics. So the active duty military is a very high bar for deployment on the streets of America.

We have things like the Posse Comitatus Act, it requires the president to make certain judgment calls. So in the case of President Trump, he never actually ordered — made the actual decision and issued the order — to deploy active duty troops on the streets of America.

Kelly: I do want to follow on what you just said and put to you a question that I have put to Jim Mattis — who served, of course, as Trump's defense secretary — how do you think, how have you thought, about duty and responsibility to your country, as opposed to your commander in chief?

Milley: Well, my duty and responsibility is to the Constitution, that's where my loyalty is. That's what I take an oath to. That's what every one of us in uniform does. We don't take an oath to an individual, we don't take an oath to anything other than the Constitution of the United States.

So our loyalty and our, you know — we are duty bound, we are oath bound — to protect and defend the Constitution. And part of that, by the way, is to follow the lawful legal orders of whomever is the elected representative, whether you like the orders or not. If they're legal and lawful, it's our obligation to follow them. And that's an important thing, we the military are obligated by law to follow lawful orders. [Crosstalk] Up until the point, though...

Kelly: ...Are you are you confident that guardrails are in place to ensure that no future president, should they issue orders that are not legal and lawful, would be able to say attempt to, say, attempt to overturn the outcome of an election?

Milley reviews the troops during the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in his honor at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on September 29.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Milley reviews the troops during the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in his honor at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on September 29.

Milley: Well, look it, the first thing that happens in any discussions with any president is, you know, the discussion of options. And if, for some reason, a president says, "Do X, Y, or Z," and you as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, think or perceive that to be illegal, then there has to be a discussion that follows. And if, for some reason, what he's saying is to do something that's illegal, you are obligated to talk to that decision-maker, the president, and inform the president, "Hey, that's illegal. That's out of bounds. That's against the rules of engagement. That's against international law." Whatever the case may be. There's many other people in the room.

Kelly: I mean, you get that I'm pushing you on this, sir, because it's not just a question of looking back in an exit interview, there is the distinct possibility this former president may become our president again.

Milley: It's the same drill. It doesn't matter if he's the president or any other president. It's the obligation of the advisor, in this case, the chairman — but also there's others in the room, it's not just you — it's the obligation of the advisors to advise the decision-maker of what the left and right limits of the decision are and what the legal boundaries are.

And I can tell you, at no time, from either president, have I received an illegal order where the decision had been made, and it was, "You are ordered to do something illegal," right.

Kelly: [I have a question from] General Michael Hayden, retired Air Force four star general, former director of CIA, he wants to know: "Are we OK or not?" And I followed up with him because I wanted to make sure I understood his question. He told me, it's the United States, not China or Russia that poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security. General Milley, what do you think

Milley: Look it, I think that as a soldier and as a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my primary responsibility is overseas and anything domestically is a matter of either domestic politics or domestic law enforcement unless deemed otherwise for a specific reason.

So as I look overseas, I think you have a wide variety of threats. I think China is the single most significant national security challenge to the United States, and will remain so for many, many years to come. But the immediate right now, the here and now, is clearly this war that's in Central Europe, with Ukraine and Russia. Russia is a very powerful country. This is the biggest war since World War II.

Kelly: Last question, General CQ Brown is taking over — the Air Force General who will take over from you as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. What advice did you give him? What do you wish you'd known?

Milley: First of all, he's been confirmed. So that's a demonstration of the people's will. Because the people's representatives, the members of Congress, have voted to confirm him. I told him: Look it, CQ. Stay true to your north star, and your north star is the Constitution of the United States. Maintain your integrity and go with your instinct. And at the end of the day, you have really a very important, but relatively simple job and concept in that your job is to advise the president and the secretary of defense and the National Security Council on the use and employment of the United States military. You're an advisor, you're not a decision maker, and give them the best advice you got, give them the best shot you got, and you're going to do just fine, but never lose your integrity and never, ever turn your back on the Constitution.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.