That’s Milley’s job—he’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and throughout the day he’d been battling with fellow Trump-administration officials over how to handle protests in Washington, D.C. The president and some of his aides wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that allows the deployment of active-duty troops within the U.S. Milley opposed the move, believing it was gravely inappropriate for active-duty forces to be involved in quelling the demonstrations. By the end of the day, his view had prevailed. Though Donald Trump would threaten to invoke the Insurrection Act, he decided against doing so immediately. He also agreed not to bring members of the 82nd Airborne Division, who had been summoned from Fort Bragg in North Carolina, into the District of Columbia.
Instead, Trump gave a brief statement calling for order, then walked out of the White House and toward nearby St. John’s Church, across streets that had been cleared by a brutal, sudden action against peaceful protesters through a combination of National Guards and federal and local law enforcement. Walking behind Trump during his brief, bizarre photo op was Milley—clad in combat fatigues—as well as Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr, and others. The incident has become a flash point in civilian-military affairs, drawing unusual condemnations from former Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, and slew of other former military officials.
Today, in his first public remarks, Milley acknowledged that he’d made a mistake.
These are weasel words: It wasn’t merely an impression. Milley’s presence, as well as other decisions made by Defense Department officials, directly involved the military in domestic politics.
The sequence of events that allowed that to happen, and what we know of the internal discussions around it, serve as a reminder that working for Trump forces officials into impossible choices between respecting the Constitution and norms or following the president. Often, like Milley, they manage to avoid one terrible outcome only by effecting a different one.
Milley attributed his error to, essentially, losing perspective. “Always maintain a keen sense of situational awareness,” he told NDU graduates. “As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched. And I am not immune.”
But talking Trump out of it required a Faustian bargain. The Monday-night clearance of Lafayette Square and the surrounding streets proved to be a disaster for the military anyway. Top civilian and uniformed leaders allowed themselves to be seen as props, and the D.C. National Guard—which reports directly to the Pentagon—helped assist in the forcible clearance of demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights, all so Trump could make a stilted appearance with a Bible. Esper, the defense secretary, has sought to distance himself from the photo op, saying he didn’t know what was planned when the group left the White House. The Pentagon also previously said Milley believed they were going to review troops and didn’t know about the clearance.
Senior Army leaders—in an effort to prevent what they feared would be a calamitous outcome if President Trump ordered combat troops from the 82nd Airborne Division holding just outside city limits to the streets—leaned heavily on the Guard to carry out aggressive tactics to prove it could do the job without active-duty forces.
Perhaps for military leaders, the distinction between the Guard cracking down on peaceful protesters and active-duty troops was meaningful. For the ordinary citizen, though, the images were clear: Troops in fatigues were breaking up demonstrations in Lafayette Square, and Milley was striding behind the president. In short, to paraphrase a Vietnam-era coinage, the military had to crack down on protesters to prevent the military from cracking down on protesters.
That shows the dilemma facing officials like Milley. If they want to protect the Constitution or the institutions they serve—the Army, the State Department, the Foreign Service—they can try to do so by ceding some territory to Trump and doing things they otherwise wouldn’t countenance. They hesitate to defy the president, because it could mean being fired, and they tell themselves that if they leave, whoever replaces them will be more of a pliable toady. But maintaining that balance is impossible over time, and eventually they have to either go through with something terrible or else risk losing their job—and often both.
Take former Ambassadors Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, who testified during impeachment hearings last year that they gritted their teeth and pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s family. They concluded that Trump’s claims were baseless, but they also worried that unless Zelensky made the announcement, vital American aid to Ukraine in its struggle against Russia was in danger. You know how the story ended: Ukraine got the aid, though the incident weakened its government; Volker and Sondland were forced out; and Trump survived the impeachment emboldened.
Or consider Mattis. The retired Marine general tried a couple of different strategies with Trump. In some cases, he simply tried to refuse commands. In others, he acceded to bad ideas to satisfy Trump, like sending troops (with no clear duties) to the southern border to stave off an (illusory) invasion of refugees on the eve of the 2018 election. But eventually, Mattis gave up, resigning over Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria. In the end, the troops came out, and Trump—having gotten what he needed out of Mattis—has now turned on him.
It’s easy to dismiss the rationalization that Trump’s reluctant or ambivalent enablers use as simple self-justification, but it’s probably true: If they leave, whoever follows will almost certainly be a loyalist or sycophant who is even worse at standing up to Trump. Esper, as this episode has demonstrated, is no Mattis. Across the administration, officials who were occasionally willing to defy Trump have been swapped for ones who won’t: Jeff Sessions for Barr, Rex Tillerson for Mike Pompeo at the State Department, Dan Coats and Joseph Maguire for Richard Grenell and John Ratcliffe at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Gary Cohn for Larry Kudlow as economic adviser.
The fact that the rationalization is true is what makes it most dangerous. Trump is effective at corrupting apparently well-meaning officials like Milley, because they don’t have any good choices. The only winning move, as a classic Cold War study of military psychology concluded, is not to play.