Meet Trump's pick to take over the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Army Gen. Mark Milley, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE’s pick for the next Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, has always been blunt. 

In his first speech as Army chief of staff in 2015, Milley warned that the Army must fight to stay prepared in the event of a major war, saying “If we do not maintain our commitment to remain strong ...  then we will pay the butcher’s bill in blood.”

Trump, who earlier this month chose Milley to replace Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as the nation’s top military officer, has previously favored this type of rhetoric. 

The nomination, if approved by the Senate, would make Milley Trump's top military adviser, placing him in the center of a turbulent administration and debates surrounding troop withdrawals in the Middle East, the transgender military ban, and a separate Space Force.

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Milley, a well-known intellect who holds degrees from Princeton and Columbia universities and the Naval War College, would also take the reins alongside a new Defense secretary, after James MattisJames Norman MattisUS leaves dozens of 'high value' ISIS detainees behind amid Syria retreat: report White House officials stand by Syria withdrawal, sanctions delay amid bipartisan pushback Sunday shows — Officials rush to Trump's defense on Syria, sanctions MORE resigned earlier this month over disagreements with Trump’s abrupt decision to pull troops from Syria. 

Though he has said little to reporters since he was named Army chief of staff in 2015, Milley in speeches, congressional testimony, and the rare interview has made clear several of his positions on major policy areas — including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Russia, China, North Korea and transgender troops.

On the closest-watched issue in Washington currently, the administration’s announced withdrawal from Syria, Milley has largely kept quiet. But in a wide-ranging interview in 2016, the Army’s top leader made clear that he believed the fight against ISIS, also known as Daesh, was far from over.

“I caution everybody, this is not time to dance in the end zone,” Milley told the Tampa Bay Times in April 2016. “This is the beginning, not the end. This is the beginning of a significant campaign that is designed to destroy Daesh and it’s going to take some time to unfold; I’m very confident in the outcome, but it is going to take some time to unfold.”

Milley has also taken a different stance from the administration on the transgender troop ban that Trump declared in July 2017.

The Army leader in November 2017 said that he stood by the service of transgender soldiers after one received a waiver for gender reassignment surgery. 

“We all, everyone in uniform, we took an oath; we took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution,” Milley told reporters.

“And embedded within that Constitution is an idea, and it’s an idea that says you and I, no matter whether you’re male or female, gay or straight or anything else, whether you’re black or you’re white or whether you’re Protestant or you’re Catholic or you’re Jew or you’re Muslim or you don’t believe at all, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or famous — it doesn’t matter. None of that matters."

He also told Senate lawmakers in April that he had “received precisely zero reports of issues” with unit cohesion, discipline and morale due to the open service of transgender service members.

Though differences in military policy ultimately led to the resignation of Mattis, some experts argue disagreements between Milley and Trump won’t necessarily be a cause for concern. 

“There is a misperception that the only senior staff and Cabinet officials that fit well with the president are the ones who agree with him,” argues James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation and a member of the Trump transition team.

“I don’t think that’s how Trump values his team. He appreciates input, and feedback and disagreement. But in the end, the president is the decider in chief and when he decides he expects follow-through. None of that suggests he won’t brook disagreement or differing opinions.” 

Trump announced the next Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman weeks after he met and had dinner with Milley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein — Mattis’s preferred candidate.

The declaration, which Trump tweeted, came months ahead of when it was expected, as Dunford has nearly a year left as chairman. The outgoing general was set to leave his position in October 2019. 

Carafano told The Hill that it’s hard to imagine the two will get off to bad start as “Trump picked exactly who he wanted.”

The four-star general’s blunt style likely endeared him to the president, who has often expressed admiration for tough-talking generals such as the World War II Army Gen. George Patton. 

Milley’s Ivy League diplomas also may have impressed Trump, who has often boasted of his degree from Pennsylvania University’s Wharton School of Business.

The Massachusetts native attended Princeton before entering the Army as an infantry officer. Over the next several decades Milley was an active-duty soldier, serving as Special Forces at one point. His deployments include one to Iraq as a brigade commander in 2004-05, three to Afghanistan, and he also served in Panama, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia, among other countries.

Under Milley, the Army has maneuvered from focusing on battling insurgencies in the Middle East to looking to a potential conflict with Russia or China.

In his interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Milley acknowledged that Russia and China “have been operating more aggressively than in the past.” 

“When it comes to higher-end threats, against a great power — for example a China or a Russia, or a regional power, such as a North Korea or an Iran — and you get into more sophisticated levels of warfare than fighting guerillas and terrorists ... We really need to train hard on combined arms operations in those type of environments and those are skills we haven’t practiced for quite a few years.”

More recently, Milley has repeated such sentiments, warning in an October speech that when it comes to Russian and Chinese aggression, “the faint clouds of a coming storm are visible on the horizon.”