Defense

Gen. Milley faces his toughest day yet on Capitol Hill

Gen. Mark Milley is expected to face a GOP grilling on Tuesday and Wednesday weeks after a number of Republicans said he should resign for threatening the principle of civilian control of the military.

Milley, the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff, was criticized for "treasonous" behavior by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others after revelations in a new book, "Peril," that Milley assured his Chinese counterpart that the U.S. was not about to launch a strike in the final days of the Trump administration.

Milley can also expect to take some bipartisan hits over the U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan and a drone strike that killed 10 people in the country and was later ruled a mistake. Milley had said it was a "righteous" strike.

"I think his credibility, and career, is on the line," one former senior Defense official told The Hill. "I think he's gonna get a grilling like he's never seen before. And if he takes the bait and gets argumentative and defensive, it's gonna be a big problem."

Milley, who will appear alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, has been no stranger to controversy in his two years on the job. 

He apologized last year after walking across Lafayette Park with former President Trump to St. John's Church after police forcibly cleared the area of racial justice protesters.

"My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics," Milley said at the time. "As a commissioned, uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from."

Those comments earned the ire of Trump and his supporters, who have gone ballistic at the reports from "Peril," by Bob Woodward and The Washington Post's Robert Costa, about Milley's communications with China.

Trump and his allies were also outraged after Milley at a House hearing in June pushed back on Republicans who questioned whether critical race theory had any place in military training, prompting an impassioned speech from the four-star general on the importance of being well read and his desire to understand where "white rage" comes from.

But it is questions about his interactions with the Chinese that are likely to be at the forefront of the GOP's questioning this week.

Arnold Punaro, a retired two-star Marine Corps general and a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director, likened the situation to a closed-door hearing with retired Gen. Colin Powell prior to his confirmation as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Powell, who had discussed the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations in Iraq with Woodward for his book "The Commanders," while the conflict was ongoing, was grilled by lawmakers "that were very concerned about that, too."

Powell "got some really, really, really tough questions about talking to Bob Woodward for the book. I think you're gonna see that same thing happen tomorrow and the next day with Gen. Milley," Punaro said.

"You're really trying to get to the facts and the truth so you can make assessments," he said.

The White House has stood firmly by Milley amid new revelations about his actions during the final weeks of Trump's tenure. 

"I have great confidence in Gen. Milley," Biden told reporters earlier this month. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden "has complete confidence in his leadership, his patriotism and his fidelity to our Constitution" and pointed back to Trump's actions leading up to Jan. 6. 

"The outgoing president of the United States, during this period of time, fomented unrest, leading to an insurrection and an attack on our nation's Capitol on Jan. 6," Psaki said, "one of the darkest days in our nation's history." 

Milley offered a brief defense of his decisions in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month. He said the calls he made to his Chinese counterpart were "routine" and made "to reassure both allies and adversaries, in this case, in order to ensure strategic stability."

Milley also indicated he would have more to say when he testifies before Congress. 

The Biden administration has endured a tremendous amount of scrutiny for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which resulted in a hasty and chaotic evacuation effort located at Kabul's airport after the city fell to the Taliban. 

Lawmakers earlier this month held a series of closed-door briefings on the exit from Afghanistan, but many have expressed frustration over limited public information from the Pentagon on the process and ongoing efforts to extract U.S. citizens and Afghan allies left behind.

Top military commanders including Milley and McKenzie are said to have recommended that Biden leave 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. However, Biden denied that was the case in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos last month. 

Milley is likely to face questions on his recommendations, the evacuation efforts and the assessments about a potential Taliban takeover. The top general told reporters last month that "no one" predicted the Afghan government would collapse as quickly as it did, a statement often cited by the White House when defending Biden's public prediction in July that the Taliban was "highly unlikely" to gain complete control of the country. 

More recently, Milley came under scrutiny after the Pentagon admitted it botched a drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

Earlier this month he released a statement calling the strike a "heart wrenching" and "horrible tragedy," committing to being fully transparent about the deadly incident.

How Milley responds to that mistake and others is likely to be the most scrutinized moments of the hearing, the former Defense official said.

"People will expect Austin to defend the administration, people will expect McKenzie to defend the operational details. Milley's got to stick in his lane and his lane is not either defending the administration or defending the operational details, he's not in the chain of command," the former official said. "I do think that confidence in him will either go up or down or go way down based on what he says."

 

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