Milley swipes at Trump as he leaves behind a complicated legacy
The nation's top general is retiring this weekend.
Outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told attendees at his retirement ceremony that the U.S. military's role is to defend the U.S. Constitution, not individuals -- a remark seemingly directed at former President Donald Trump.
"We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a country, a tribe, or a religion. We do not take an oath to a king, or a queen, to a tyrant or dictator and we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator," Milley said emphatically at a military farewell ceremony.
"We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we take an oath to the Constitution, to the idea that is America, and we're willing to die to protect it," he emphasized.
Last week, Trump made a post on his social media platform accusing Milley of treason, going as far as to suggest he should be executed for treason.
Like his predecessors, Milley played a central role during the Trump and Biden administrations in matters involving U.S. national security matters, particularly in helping to lead the international effort to support Ukraine's military following Russia's invasion in 2022. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week, and he has consistently advocated for sending additional supplies to Ukrainian fighters.
But unlike his predecessors, he was often at the center of domestic political debates during the Trump administration that raised questions about whether he was moving beyond the traditional role of being the president's top military adviser and about his role in the Biden administration's chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As President Joe Biden was readying to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Milley said that his assessment in the fall of 2020 was that he wanted to keep "a steady state of 2,500" troops on the ground in Afghanistan that "could bounce up to 3,500."
But Milley's statement was at odds with what Biden had told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in an interview on Aug. 18, 2021.
"No one told -- your military advisers did not tell you, 'No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that?'" Stephanopoulos asked Biden.
"No," said Biden. "No one said that to me, that I can recall."
Praised for helping to keep the military apolitical during Trump's refusal to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, particularly during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, Milley had opened himself up to criticism that he had done the exact opposite months earlier. In June 2020, Milley, donning his military uniform, accompanied Trump in a walk through Lafayette Park for a photo opportunity at St. John's Episcopal Church after law enforcement had forcibly removed protesters who were demonstrating against George Floyd's death.
Milley later apologized for that incident saying, "I should not have been there" because "my presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."
In his remarks, Milley provided a full-throated defense of democracy and emphasized that the U.S. military's responsibility is to defend the Constitution.
"Today is not about anyone up here on the stage. It is about something much larger than all of us. It is about our democracy. It is about our republic. It is about the colors posted behind me. It is about the ideas and values that make up this great experiment in liberty," said Milley.
In his remarks at the ceremony, Biden described how the Constitution has been Milley's "North Star," so much so that Milley's challenge coin is emblazoned with the words "We the People."
"You've done honor to the uniform of our nation. You upheld your oath. Thank you," the president told Milley.
Milley returned the praise, calling Biden a "man of incredible integrity and character."
Milley emphasized that American service members are willing to give their lives for the rights enshrined in the Constitution.
"The blood we spill pays for our freedom of speech, our right to assemble, our due process, our freedom of press, our right to vote, and all the other rights and privileges that come with being an American," said Milley.
"It is the blood of our fallen, it is the blood of our wounded that sustains our freedom. We should always be inspired by them, we should never forget them, and we should always honor them," he said. "We, the American military, never turn our back on those that came before us. And we will never turn our back on the Constitution. That is who we are, and that is why we fight."
In an interview that aired Sept. 17, Milley told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz that he does not believe that what occurred on Jan. 6 could happen again.
"I am confident that the United States and the democracy in this country will prevail and the rule of law will prevail," Milley said. "These institutions are built to be strong, resilient and to adapt to the times, and I'm 100% confident we'll be fine."
Friday's ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, near the Pentagon, was a send-off for Milley but also honored Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, whom Milley swore in as his successor.