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Opinion Gen. Milley’s stress test

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Pentagon on Aug. 18. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The final months of Donald Trump’s presidency were a stress test for Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He feared that Trump would use a violent crisis at home or abroad to draw the military into his machinations to retain power.

Milley was determined to prevent this politicization of the military, and the nation owes him a debt of thanks for his vigilance. But Milley’s efforts also took him into dangerous constitutional terrain that no soldier should have to patrol, edging close to violating the sacrosanct principle ­of civilian control of the military.

So Milley’s case presents a paradox: The nation benefited from the actions he took, but they also threaten to set a dangerous precedent. It’s crucial now to use that lesson to rebuild and reinforce the traditional civilian-military structure that was damaged, like so many parts of our national life, during Trump’s presidency.

Milley has come under fire in the run-up to the publication of “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Post. The book provides new documentation of what has been whispered for months — that Milley reached out to foreign military leaders and U.S. politicians to counteract Trump’s ability to use a violent crisis for political advantage.

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Milley’s detractors have focused on his Oct. 30, 2020, and Jan. 8 telephone calls to Gen. Li Zuocheng, his Chinese counterpart, to calm Chinese fears that Trump might take rash military action. This criticism is misplaced. Military-to-military contacts to “deconflict” crises are common and essential.

Milley’s predecessor, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., recalled in an interview that in 2018 he had contacted Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of military staff, to ease his fears of instability while Russia was hosting the World Cup soccer tournament that summer. Dunford said he encouraged NATO to call off a scheduled military exercise, just as Milley did in advising postponement of an Indo-Pacific Command exercise after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Avoiding unintended confrontations is part of the job for a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And though the chairman isn’t formally in the chain of command, Dunford and others say there was nothing improper in Milley’s request that commanders keep him informed, as the president’s chief military adviser, if Trump gave an order to use nuclear weapons or other military force.

The focus on Milley misses a larger point: He was just one of a half-dozen senior military and civilian officials who took similar unusual steps during the final months of Trump’s administration to prevent what they feared might be a domestic or international catastrophe. This group — which quietly placed guardrails around the president’s actions — included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William P. Barr, CIA Director Gina Haspel and other senior officials, according to Woodward and Costa’s book and my own reporting.

In curbing the unilateral power of a reckless commander in chief, did these officials violate the Constitution? None of them were elected, after all, unlike Trump. When I asked a member of this guardrail group to go on the record five months ago, he refused. “This is an ugly story,” he said. It shouldn’t happen in our democracy.

For Milley, the worries about Trump’s manipulation of the military began in June 2020, when Trump wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy uniformed active-duty troops to quell violent protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Milley told colleagues later that when Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller demanded troops during an Oval Office meeting June 1, arguing that “the barbarians are at the gates,” Milley cut him off, saying, “Shut the f--- up, Steve.” Trump backed down.

Later that day, Milley made an error he still regrets. In his baggy camouflage uniform, he accompanied Trump and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper across Lafayette Square to a photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. “I realized it was a mistake halfway across, but by then it was too late,” he said later.

Milley worried after the election that Trump was trying to seize what he called the intelligence “power ministries” of government — the CIA, FBI and NSA. He refused to endorse a December plan to break up the National Security Agency from Cyber Command and install a Trump loyalist at the NSA. Meanwhile, Barr had rejected an effort to dump Christopher A. Wray as head of the FBI, Woodward and Costa write. And as I reported in April, Haspel said in December that she would quit if Trump fired her deputy and installed Trump zealot Kashyap Patel.

Woodward and Costa quote Milley’s Jan. 8 reassurance to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he would prevent any misuse of the military. She was concerned because Trump had fired Esper and installed as acting defense secretary an inexperienced Christopher C. Miller, along with a group of top aides headed by Patel as chief of staff.

Pelosi wasn’t the only politician Milley contacted in the turbulent transition months. He told colleagues he spoke with Senate Republican and Democratic leaders Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Schumer, and Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the two leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

For all of Milley’s worries, he didn’t initially consider the potential for trouble on Jan. 6, when Congress would officially certify the election results. Indeed, on the eve of Jan. 6, Milley’s big fear was that too much military force would be used to protect the Capitol, rather than too little.

He was still focused on the danger that Trump might invoke the Insurrection Act in the event of domestic unrest, as he had wanted to do June 1. This desire to avoid the appearance of militarization was one reason the police and National Guard lacked the equipment, numbers and rules of engagement that might have prevented the Jan. 6 catastrophe. It was a classic case of overlearning the lesson of the last crisis — the Lafayette Square incident — and misjudging the current one.

As Inauguration Day approached, Milley and other officials across government organized the huge show of force that surrounded the nation’s capital, and Joe Biden took office without incident. Since then, Milley apparently hasn’t been shy about explaining his activist role in trying to protect the military and Constitution. Other officials similarly have discussed their roles in checking Trump’s actions during those fraught months.

Milley doesn’t do anything quietly, unlike his predecessor, Dunford. And he may have been indiscreet in some of his attempts to ring the alarm bell. But his contacts with foreign officials to reduce risk of conflict weren’t much different from what other chairmen have done. What was unusual were his pledges to Pelosi and other U.S. officials to restrain any unlawful or improper actions by the commander in chief.

Milley is a target right now. But even as we underline the proper limits on the role of military leaders, we should remember that this problem began with a lawless president who threatened to politicize the military — to the point that the top-ranking general decided to fight back to fulfill what he saw as his paramount duty, to safeguard his country.