The country’s former top military officer said that during the 2020 presidential cycle he felt compelled to declare publicly that America’s armed forces would not intervene in the electoral process in any way.
In an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, Army Gen. Mark Milley, who just wrapped up his term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained why he took the unusual step in 2020 of saying more than once that the American military would have “zero role” to play in that year’s presidential election.
“I was asked by Congress in testimony and I was asked on questions for the record by members of Congress, what role and how we would be involved in the election,” Milley said.
“And clearly, it’s the American people that elect a president. And if that election is contested, it goes to the courts and they make decisions. And then ultimately, it’s all certified by the people’s representatives of Congress. And nowhere along that line, zero, not a single place, do you see intervention by the United States military,” he said.
As Gen. Mark Milley looks back at a tumultuous four-year-term, he is philosophical about his service under former President Donald Trump and adamant about an American ideal he said he tried to defend. During his time in the job, the United States military pulled out of Afghanistan, helped arm and train Ukrainian forces and was challenged by an increasingly assertive China; but it was Milley’s actions during the 2020 election that could define his tenure.
Milley said that his statements about a politically neutral U.S. military were directed at audiences both inside and outside the United States.
“I wanted to make sure it was clear to the American people, to our adversaries, to our friends and allies overseas, but also to our own force, to us, wearing the uniform, that we have zero, and I mean, zero role in U.S. electoral politics.”
Milley also played down reports that he repeatedly clashed with Trump during his time in office.
“Generals don’t have clashes with presidents. I think some of that is overstated, frankly, about clashes, like raised voices and arguments and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I rendered to President Trump just like I rendered to President Biden. I give him various courses of action and options.”
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to comment on a social media post by Trump last week in which he accused Milley of “treasonous” actions when he reached out to a Chinese military counterpart. In his post, Trump said that in “times gone by,” the punishment for such behavior would be “death.”
“I’m not going to respond to specific comments by former President Trump or anyone else. I’m a public figure, and I will put one step in front of the other to continue to defend that Constitution, period, full stop,” Milley said.
But he defended the phone conversation with China’s top military brass, which he said was meant to reassure Beijing that the United States remained stable after the 2020 election.
“(Defense) Secretary (Mike) Esper asked me to make a call. And, and we did that,” Milley said.
“So what the Chinese were perceiving was incorrect. They were nervous about potential political instability in this country. Secretary Esper asked me to make sure that they didn’t make any military moves,” he said.
Milley also addressed the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Asked if anyone should be held accountable for errors made during the U.S. pullout, the general said: “Well, if you mean has anyone been specifically punished in some way? No,” Milley said. “But look, Lester, that war didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to end. This is a 20-year war. There are decisions made over 20 years that landed us where we did.”
As for America’s adversaries, Milley said the Chinese spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina earlier this year failed to collect intelligence against U.S. targets though he declined to elaborate. He noted that China’s intelligence organizations are “very capable, very competent.”
Milley said he has no plans to write a tell-all book about his tenure. But he did have a message for his successor and other members of the military: Public service free of partisan politics remains possible and vital.
“You have to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan, as the chairman,” he said. “So you have to be informed, you have to understand the environment you’re operating in, you have to be informed by the politics of the day or any other issues of the day. But that doesn’t mean you’re political, that’s different.”
For more on this story, tune in to NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT or check your local listings.