RSN Fundraising Banner
FOCUS: Mark Milley's Fight to Stop Trump From Striking Iran
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=53060"><span class="small">Susan B. Glasser, The New Yorker</span></a>   
Sunday, 18 July 2021 11:40

Glasser writes: "The last time that General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with President Donald Trump was on January 3, 2021. The subject of the Sunday-afternoon meeting, at the White House, was Iran's nuclear program."

In the months after the 2020 election, the subject of Iran was repeatedly raised in White House meetings with Trump, and Mark Milley repeatedly argued against a strike. (photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
In the months after the 2020 election, the subject of Iran was repeatedly raised in White House meetings with Trump, and Mark Milley repeatedly argued against a strike. (photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Mark Milley's Fight to Stop Trump From Striking Iran

By Susan B. Glasser, The New Yorker

18 July 21

Inside the extraordinary final-days conflict between the former President and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

he last time that General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with President Donald Trump was on January 3, 2021. The subject of the Sunday-afternoon meeting, at the White House, was Iran’s nuclear program. For the past several months, Milley had been engaged in an alarmed effort to insure that Trump did not embark on a military conflict with Iran as part of his quixotic campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election and remain in power. The chairman secretly feared that Trump would insist on launching a strike on Iranian interests that could set off a full-blown war.

There were two “nightmare scenarios,” Milley told associates, for the period after the November 3rd election, which resulted in Trump’s defeat but not his concession: one was that Trump would try “to use the military on the streets of America to prevent the legitimate, peaceful transfer of power.” The other was an external crisis involving Iran. It was not public at the time, but Milley believed that the nation had come close—“very close”—to conflict with the Islamic Republic. This dangerous post-election period, Milley said, was all because of Trump’s “Hitler”-like embrace of the “Big Lie” that the election had been stolen from him; Milley feared it was Trump’s “Reichstag moment,” in which, like Adolf Hitler in 1933, he would manufacture a crisis in order to swoop in and rescue the nation from it.

To prevent such an outcome, Milley had, since late in 2020, been having morning phone meetings, at 8 A.M. on most days, with the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in the hopes of getting the country safely through to Joe Biden’s Inauguration. The chairman, a burly four-star Army general who had been appointed to the post by Trump in 2019, referred to these meetings with his staff as the “land the plane” calls—as in, “both engines are out, the landing gear are stuck, we’re in an emergency situation. Our job is to land this plane safely and to do a peaceful transfer of power the 20th of January.”

This extraordinary confrontation between the nation’s top military official and the Commander-in-Chief had been building throughout 2020. Before the election, Milley had drafted a plan for how to handle the perilous period leading up to the Inauguration. He outlined four goals: first, to make sure that the U.S. didn’t unnecessarily go to war overseas; second, to make sure that U.S. troops were not used on the streets of America against the American people, for the purpose of keeping Trump in power; third, to maintain the military’s integrity; and, lastly, to maintain his own integrity. He referred back to them often in conversations with others.

As the crisis with Trump unfolded, and the chairman’s worst-case fears about the President not accepting defeat seemed to come true, Milley repeatedly met in private with the Joint Chiefs. He told them to make sure there were no unlawful orders from Trump and not to carry out any such orders without calling him first—almost a conscious echo of the final days of Richard Nixon, when Nixon’s Defense Secretary, James Schlesinger, reportedly warned the military not to act on any orders from the White House to launch a nuclear strike without first checking with him or with the national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger. At one meeting with the Joint Chiefs, in Milley’s Pentagon office, the chairman invoked Benjamin Franklin’s famous line, saying they should all hang together. To concerned members of Congress—including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—and also emissaries from the incoming Biden Administration, Milley also put out the word: Trump might attempt a coup, but he would fail because he would never succeed in co-opting the American military. “Our loyalty is to the U.S. Constitution,” Milley told them, and “we are not going to be involved in politics.”

This account of a behind-the-scenes struggle over Iran involving Milley and Trump—a secret backdrop to the public drama unleashed by Trump’s unprecedented refusal to accept the Presidential-election results—comes from some of the nearly two hundred interviews, with a variety of sources, that I have conducted along with my husband, the Times reporter Peter Baker, for a book on the Trump Presidency that will be published next year. Some of the other details reported here about Milley’s actions have been disclosed in recent days by the authors of two new books about Trump and 2020—Michael Bender, of the Wall Street Journal, and Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, of the Washington Post—and been independently confirmed by me. Milley has not addressed the revelations publicly.

In a statement released on Thursday, reacting to reports about the Rucker and Leonnig book, Trump said, “I never threatened, or spoke about, to anyone, a coup of our Government.” He added, “If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is General Mark Milley.” Trump said he selected Milley for the post only because he wanted to spite his then Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, who, he said, “could not stand him.” “I often act counter to people’s advice who I don’t respect,” Trump noted. The former President posited that Milley, a career military officer, was allowing these accounts to circulate “to curry favor with the Radical Left.”

Milley had been in full-alarm mode since the summer of 2020. On June 1st, Trump had used the general as a prop in his infamous Lafayette Square photo op: Trump had marched through the plaza minutes after it had been violently cleared of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, and following him was Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a pack of his White House advisers, and Milley, who was dressed in combat fatigues, as if at war inside America. Milley, an Irish-Catholic from outside Boston who worships the Constitution and the military’s tradition of political neutrality, considered that photo op his “Damascus moment,” as he would later call it: a few short minutes of misjudgment that would haunt him forever. He considered resigning but instead decided to do his penance. “I’ll fight from the inside,” he told his staff. The following week, during a previously scheduled commencement address, he apologized publicly for taking part in a political display that was completely inappropriate for the leader of America’s apolitical armed forces.

On June 3rd, in the Pentagon briefing room, Esper announced that he was opposed to invoking the Insurrection Act against protesters and said that he tried to remain apolitical in his job. Soon after Esper’s statement to the press, Esper, Milley, and the CENTCOM commander, Frank Mackenzie, were scheduled to attend a White House meeting on Afghanistan. Trump, enraged, lit into Esper before Milley could even sit down. The President went “apeshit” on Esper, Milley told associates, one of the worst such reamings-out he had ever seen. Trump would go on to fire Esper days after he lost the 2020 election. Milley told his aides that he, too, was prepared to be fired, or even court-martialled. In another meeting after Milley’s speech, Trump, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, demanded to know why Milley had apologized; apologies, Trump told him, according to an account that Milley later repeated, are a sign of weakness. “Not where I come from,” Milley replied, as he later told associates. Milley said he had to ask for forgiveness because he was a soldier in uniform who did not belong at a political event. “I don’t expect you to understand,” Milley had said, “It’s an ethic for us, a duty.” (In his statement on Thursday, Trump referenced his anger at Milley’s apology. “I saw at that moment he had no courage or skill, certainly not the type of person I would be talking ‘coup’ with. I’m not into coups!”)

A running concern for Milley was the prospect of Trump pushing the nation into a military conflict with Iran. He saw this as a real threat, in part because of a meeting with the President in the early months of 2020, at which one of Trump’s advisers raised the prospect of taking military action to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons if Trump were to lose the election. At another meeting, at which Trump was not present, some of the President’s foreign-policy advisers again pushed military action against Iran. Milley later said that, when he asked why they were so intent on attacking Iran, Vice-President Mike Pence replied, “Because they are evil.”

In the months after the election, with Trump seemingly willing to do anything to stay in power, the subject of Iran was repeatedly raised in White House meetings with the President, and Milley repeatedly argued against a strike. Trump did not want a war, the chairman believed, but he kept pushing for a missile strike in response to various provocations against U.S. interests in the region. Milley, by statute the senior military adviser to the President, was worried that Trump might set in motion a full-scale conflict that was not justified. Trump had a circle of Iran hawks around him and was close with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also urging the Administration to act against Iran after it was clear that Trump had lost the election. “If you do this, you’re gonna have a fucking war,” Milley would say.

Finally, on January 3rd, after Trump had flown back from his Christmas vacation at Mar-a-Lago, he convened the Oval Office meeting on Iran, asking his advisers about recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear activities. Both Mike Pompeo and the national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Trump that it was not possible to do anything militarily at that point. Their attitude was that it was “too late to hit them.” After Milley walked through the potential costs and consequences, Trump agreed. And that was that: after months of anxiety and uncertainty, the Iran fight was over.

At the very end of the meeting Trump brought up the forthcoming rally of his supporters on January 6th, asking Milley and the acting Defense Secretary, Christopher Miller, if they were prepared for what Trump had already promised, on Twitter, would be a “wild” protest. It was a short conversation, Milley later recalled to associates, no more than a couple of minutes at the end of an hour-long meeting. “It’s gonna be a big deal,” Milley heard Trump say. “You’re ready for that, right?” It was the last time the President would ever speak to his Joint Chiefs chairman.

Just three days later, on January 6th, a version of Milley’s nightmare scenario played out anyway: an attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to stop Congress from ratifying Biden’s victory. Milley had not envisioned it, not exactly—his fears had been largely about street violence, involving running battles between pro-Trump thugs and left-wing opponents that Trump might use as a pretext for demanding martial law. This was the analogy to Germany in the nineteen-thirties that Milley had in mind. When January 6th happened, it wasn’t quite like that, of course. But Milley told others on that awful day that what they had dreaded had come to pass: Trump had his “Reichstag moment” after all. your social media marketing partner