As the presidential election looms, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells NPR's Morning Edition that the military plays no role in politics, and that he has complete trust in America's institutions to manage election disputes.
"We have established a very long 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics," Milley told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Sunday.
Milley's comments represent the first time he has addressed the potential for a disputed election in depth in an on-the-record interview.
"We, the U.S. military, we are sworn to obey the lawful orders of our civilian leadership," he said. "And we want to ensure that there is always civilian leadership, civilian control of the military, and we will obey the lawful orders of civilian control of the military."
This comes as politicians prepare for the possibility of a contested election. President Trump has suggested that he might not accept the results if he is not declared the winner. He has made baseless claims about voter fraud being widespread. Voter fraud is actually extremely rare.
Milley, who has said in statements to Congress that he wants to stay out of all election disputes, tells NPR that he is "very confident in the resilience of the American institutions and the American government and the American people's adherence to the principles of rules of law."
"This isn't the first time that someone has suggested that there might be a contested election," Milley said. "And if there is, it'll be handled appropriately by the courts and by the U.S. Congress. There's no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero. There is no role there."
This comes amidst discussion about reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan, or withdrawing them altogether. On Wednesday, national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the U.S. will cut the number of troops serving in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year, according to Reuters. Hours later, President Trump tweeted that all remaining U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan should be withdrawn by Christmas.
"I think that Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit," Milley said. "I'm not going to engage in speculation. I'm going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president. And then when we get to the point where we have further discussions and further decisions, those will be appropriately made public."
Milley also told NPR about how the military is handling individual extremists within the ranks, and said military leaders "monitor that pretty closely" but that he doesn't "see it as a widespread issue in the military right now."
"It's always a concern, extremists of any bent, and we pay close attention to symbols, tattoos, language, behavior, etc., for any member of the U.S. military that displays any sort of extremist behavior," Milley said. "And where we discover it, we apply the appropriate measures of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and enforce good order and discipline in the force. So that is something that we monitor."
Milley joined NPR from his home in Fort Myer, Va., where he is currently quarantining. Other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also began quarantining last week after attending meetings with an admiral who tested positive for COVID-19. While he's working from home, Milley says he has the same communication systems that they do in the Pentagon.
"I just want to kind of review the bidding here and assure the American people that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are fully functional, even though we're functional from home," he said.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: General Mark Milley has spent the last several days at home. The president's principal military adviser went into isolation last week, so did other generals and admirals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff after attending several meetings with an admiral who tested positive for COVID. General Milley stays at a century-old brick house on a hilltop at Fort Myer, Va. It's on property overlooking Washington, D.C.
MARK MILLEY: Probably one of the best views of the Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington monuments anywhere in town.
INSKEEP: Fort Myer is on that high ground because it was chosen to defend the Capitol in the civil war. When General Milley came to the phone, he told us of the view inside. From isolation, he and other top officers have been monitoring the military in a time of pandemic and of political division.
MILLEY: We all have various, you know, SCIFs - special compartmented information facilities - built into our houses whether you're here or down at the naval annex or downtown in the Marine Corps commandant's house. And we all have all those same communication systems we have in the Pentagon.
INSKEEP: General, did you feel - aside from the health concerns, did you feel it was important that you set an example by following the CDC rules as exactly as you could?
MILLEY: Well, I think it is important. We have - and absolutely. We have a force of 2.3 million troops out there. And we were possibly exposed to someone who we know was positive.
MILLEY: So we went right to the book, went right to the doctors and pulled out the guidelines. And for us, by the way, there's actually - there's a set of rules that is for critical infrastructure personnel, which - the Joint Chiefs are considered critical infrastructure personnel. And we're following that, which - checking temperatures, wearing a mask, taking - the testing is actually not part of that. So we're going over and above and beyond the protocols. And by the rules, we don't actually have to isolate ourselves. But I thought that was prudent. And I think it sets a good example for the force as well.
INSKEEP: General, as you know, the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, said the other day that he expected a big reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by early next year. And then after he made that statement, President Trump said on Twitter that troops should - he used the word should - be home by Christmas. In light of those public statements, what specific orders, if any, have you received?
MILLEY: We have a plan, a series of responsible drawdown options that has been briefed to the president. I'm not going to go into specific numbers for the future. I think that'd be inappropriate for me as a - as the chairman, to talk specific numbers in future operations. We typically don't do that. But we have a responsible plan to end the war with U.S. interests clearly in mind.
INSKEEP: And General Milley said his orders are to withdraw troops based on conditions. He is not supposed to withdraw by some arbitrary deadline, like Christmas. And he dismissed the national security adviser's talk of withdrawals early in the year.
MILLEY: Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I'm not going to engage in speculation. I'm going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of in my conversations with the president.
INSKEEP: The president, of course, is the commander in chief. He is also a civilian political leader in a fight for reelection. And the president has already talked of a disputed election.
General, as some people will know, you held a virtual town hall recently. In that town hall, you talked about diversity. You talked about inclusion. And you also told everyone in uniform to, quote, "hold the Constitution close to your heart." Now, I know that's something that anybody in the military could say at any time over generations. But you said it in that particular way now. Why did you feel it was important to remind people of that now?
MILLEY: Well, I've reminded people of that for years, you know, for four years as the chief of staff of the Army and in many years before that during reenlistment ceremonies, promotion ceremonies. I always talk about the Constitution and its importance to us as a military in that we - of all the countries in the world, I think that we are the only one - or at least one of the very few - that swears an oath of allegiance to an idea that's embedded in a document called the U.S. Constitution. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to an individual, a king, a queen, a president or anything else.
We don't swear an oath of allegiance to a country, for that matter. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to a flag, a tribe or religion or any of that. We swear an oath to an idea or a set of ideas and values that are embedded in our Constitution. And we, the U.S. military, are willing to die for - to preserve those ideas and values. And we're willing to die in order to preserve them and pass them onto the next generation. So - and they're all in the Constitution. They're all fundamental to the Constitution.
INSKEEP: How do you want the military to apply that in this divided time?
MILLEY: Steve, I think that we have a very, very long tradition of an apolitical military. That's embedded, really, from the days of George Washington - shortly afterwards when he gave his famous Newburgh Address, and they were encouraging George Washington to seize power or become a king of some kind. And he gave a very famous speech. And we want to ensure that there is always civilian leadership, civilian control of the military. And we will obey the lawful orders of civilian control of the military - a long-standing tradition. And we adhere to the rule of law.
INSKEEP: I know that you've said in statements to Congress and elsewhere that you want to stay out of any election disputes. And yet people raise that possibility, of some kind of dispute over the election results after November 3. Are you confident that the legal process for resolving those disputes - the courts, the electoral votes, the vote in the House of Representatives if there's some problem with the electoral votes, other safeguards - are you confident that the legal process is strong enough that you will always know who your civilian leader is, who the president is, whose orders you need to take?
MILLEY: I am. I'm very confident in the resilience of the American institutions and the American government and the American people's adherence to the principles of rules of law.
INSKEEP: As you know, General, the other day, a number of alleged extremists, terrorists, were arrested in Michigan, accused of a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Now, that's a law enforcement matter. That's a civilian matter, not your business. But, of course, the military is your business. How widespread, if at all, is the problem of individual extremists within the ranks of the U.S. military?
MILLEY: We actually monitor that pretty closely, Steve, and we have for years, by the way. We pay close attention to symbols, tattoos, language, behavior, et cetera, for any member of the U.S. military that displays any sort of extremist behavior. I don't see it as a widespread issue in the military right now. And I'm not overly concerned about it. But it is something that we do monitor and watch.
INSKEEP: General Milley, it's always a pleasure. Thank you very much.
MILLEY: Thanks, Steve. I appreciate the opportunity.
INSKEEP: General Mark Milley is the president's top military adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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