Was General Mark Milley Undermining His Own Country?


Wesley Smith

September 16, 2021

8 min read

National Security



The most shocking revelation in Bob Woodward’s new book, Peril,is that General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJSC) went rogue and contacted his counterpart in the Chinese Communist military and told him, if the United States planned any military action against China, that Milley would give him advance notice.  This was allegedly done in the waning days of the Trump Presidency because the general thought President Trump unstable and that the Commander-in-Chief might launch an attack on China.  There is no evidence that President Trump ever considered such an attack. There are still questions that must be answered, including, is Woodward’s reporting accurate?  And was Milley directed to do this by his immediate supervisor, the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in October?  Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, serving during the time of Milley’s second phone call to China, categorically denies giving the general permission to talk with his Communist counterpart and says he was unaware of the phone call.

We believe that General Milley, like every American citizen, must be presumed innocent of such allegations until evidence is adduced in court to convict him or he admits to such culpability. But, if events in the book are accurate, and if the Secretary of Defense did not authorize this, General Milley should be fired immediately by the man who is President of the United States now, Joe Biden.  This kind of behavior by anyone in the military, to say nothing of a senior leader in Milley’s position, simply cannot be tolerated.  It is a direct threat to the Constitutional tenet that the U.S. military is under civilian control.  It would also undermine not just Donald Trump’s presidency—but the office of the President of the United States writ large, including Biden’s presidency.  The principle of civilian control of the military is what makes the U.S. different from many countries, and it is why we do not have military coups in the United States.

The allegations in Woodward’s book are alarming to the extreme and would indicate that the most senior-ranking officer in the U.S. military was committed to undermining his own country—sedition at best, treason in a worst-case scenario.  Equally alarming is the report in the book that General Milley went to the National Military Command Center in the basement of the Pentagon and demanded that they inform him of any plans by the President to take action against any country and to not follow the President’s orders unless they informed the general first.  The book reports that General Milley reminded them that he is in the chain-of- command regarding any such actions—something that is categorically false.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has no command authority.  He is rather the senior military adviser to the President.  That is written into U.S. law.  He is an advisor with four stars on his shoulder; he is NOT a commander. It is the commanders of the joint combatant commands – U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Pacific Command, and so on – who are in the chain of command.

The National Security Act of 1947, under the leadership of President Harry Truman, significantly reorganized the U.S. military.  It was this legislation that formed the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  It also established the U.S. Air Force as a separate military department and created the National Security Council.  That bill created the Department of Defense headed by the Secretary of Defense. The former Departments of War and of the Navy became part of the newly created Department of Defense alongside the new Department of the Air Force. The Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense.  That Act created many of the institutions that presidents found useful when formulating foreign policy and national security.

That legislation in 1947 was further clarified by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.  That Act expressly states that the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not have operational command authority, either individually or collectively, and provided that the U.S. chain-of-command goes from the President of the United States to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders in the field.  There are 11 Unified Combatant Commands (COCOMS), each led by a four-star officer.  These generals and admirals do have command authority and are charged with following the President’s orders under the direction of the Secretary of Defense.  Again, the JCS and its chairman are advisors to the President only.  That is obviously a very important role, but they are not in the chain-of-command. 

If Woodward’s allegations are true, Milley violated his military responsibilities on multiple levels.  He violated the Constitutional provision that the President, a civilian, is the sole commander-in-chief of all U.S. military forces and the sole head of the Executive Branch. The Department of Defense is a part of the Executive Branch. If Milley did what has been claimed, he would have been undermining the lawful authority of the President. He would have violated U.S. law as contained in the National Defense Act of 1947 and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.  General Milley would also be violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), including Article 94 which provides that “a service member of the United States armed forces who seeks to overthrow lawful civil or military order by seditious or mutinous acts either through violence or disobedience” is guilty of a punishable offense.  If true, General Milley’s actions were indicative of willful disobedience that would disrupt lawful military and civilian order.

If, as alleged, General Milley really thought that President Trump was incompetent or mentally unstable, the appropriate action would have been to go to his immediate supervisor (the Secretary of Defense) with his concerns.  The Secretary of Defense is in the chain-of-command and is also a member of the President’s cabinet.  The general had no authority to go directly to an adversary of the U.S. and give assurances that he would warn them of any impending action by the United States.  If any military action were planned, that act on the part of the general in and of itself would have been traitorous. It could lead to the deaths of U.S. service members and would undermine the security of the United States.  It could have disastrous military consequences.

Short of a direct order by the Secretary of Defense, Milley’s phone calls and actions to the Chinese Communists were absolutely un-American and illegal—to say nothing of detrimental to the safety and security of the entire nation.  It sets a dangerous precedent.  Military officers are not allowed to operate outside of the chain-of-command in such a reckless and arrogant manner.  If he acted as alleged, General Milley allowed his personal opinions of President Trump to cloud his professional judgement.  It led him to violate his sacred oath as a commissioned officer and to arrogate to himself authority he did not possess.  This is inexcusable and unforgivable.  Any lower ranking officer who did this kind of thing would rightfully be subject to a court martial.  The general is not above the law.

What is also troubling is that General Milley has not directly and forthrightly denied the allegation. Instead, the Department of Defense provided a wishy-washy answer that states that contact between the United States and potential adversaries routinely takes place. That is true, but it does not even begin to answer the allegation that Milley made promises to a potential adversary that undermine not only U.S. security interests but the Republic itself.

Some members of Congress are calling for General Milley to resign or for President Biden to fire him.  At the very least, Congress should investigate these allegations and, if they are true, the general must be relieved of his duties.  The FBI interviewed General Michael Flynn for merely making a phone call to his Russian counterparts to assist a new administration coming into power, something that was legal and sensible. He was then brought up on charges.  The FBI should – no, must -- investigate the allegations in Woodward’s book and question General Milley, for these allegations strike at the heart of the law and national security.

At our Republic’s founding, our forefathers feared the existence of a standing army because standing armies can run roughshod over civilian institutions if certain strict limits are not observed. If the allegations against General Milley have even a whiff of truth, he has violated his oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, as well as provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As a career Army officer myself, I am appalled that such a charge could even be made against a General Officer in any of our armed services, but the lack of a forthright denial causes me even more concern.