Retiring as chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, the army general Mark Milley directed a parting shot at Donald Trump, the president he served but whom he seemed to call a “wannabe dictator”.
Speaking at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, Milley said of the US armed forces: “We don’t take an oath to a country. We don’t take an oath to a tribe. We don’t take an oath to a religion.
“We don’t take an oath to a king, or queen, or tyrant or a dictator, and we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator.
“We don’t take an oath to an individual. We take an oath to the constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we’re willing to die to protect it.”
Trump, who nominated Milley in 2019, did not immediately comment. But Milley’s struggles to contain Trump, particularly in 2020, the tumultuous final year of his presidency, have been long and widely reported.
Such struggles concerned foreign policy, as Milley and other officials sought to stop the erratic president provoking confrontations with foes including China and Iran.
But Milley and others also had to keep the US military out of domestic affairs, as Trump chafed against nationwide protests for racial justice, openly yearning to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and thereby call in the army.
Last week saw publication of an in-depth profile by the Atlantic, in which Milley again expressed his regret over an infamous appearance with Trump in June 2020, when the president marched from the White House to a historic church, slightly damaged amid the protests, in an attempt to project a strongman image.
The Atlantic profile prompted Trump to rail at Milley again, calling a widely reported conversation in which the general sought to reassure his Chinese counterpart that Trump would not order an attack “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!”
Milley has said he has taken “adequate safety precautions” against potential threats from Trump supporters perhaps also encouraged by the words of Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican congressman who told supporters Milley should be hanged.
The general also previewed his remarks in Arlington in an interview with CBS News.
“As much as these comments are directed at me, it’s also directed at the institution of the military,” he said. “And there is 2.1 million of us in uniform. And the American people can take it to the bank, that all of us, every single one of us, from private to general, are loyal to that constitution and will never turn our back on it no matter what. No matter what the threats, no matter what the humiliation, no matter what.
“If we’re willing to die for that document, if we’re willing to deploy to combat, if we’re willing to lose an arm, a leg, an eye, to protect and support and defend that document and protect the American people, then we are willing to live for it too.”
On Thursday, at a fundraising event in Arizona, Joe Biden also decried Trump’s threat.
“Did you see recently where he called for the assassination – or the death penalty for Gen Milley, one of the leading military minds we have had in the last 20 years in America, because Trump disagreed when he gave him an honest answer?
“Think about that,” the president said. “Think about that.”
Milley’s time at the head of the US armed forces saw other challenges, particularly in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in summer 2021, after 20 years of war, and in the supervision of US support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.
In Arlington on Friday, Milley spoke after Biden and Charles Q Brown, an air force general and the new chair of the joint chiefs of staff.
Praising Milley, Biden said the general’s “north star” was the constitution and “the idea of America”.
The president also hit out at Tommy Tuberville, though without naming the Alabama Republican senator whose hold on senior military promotions, in protest of Pentagon policy on abortion, has infuriated military leaders and veterans’ groups.
“A single senator” and other Republicans who have not stopped him were responsible for a “totally unacceptable” situation in which “more than 300 military officers and reservists are held in limbo”, Biden said, adding: “It’s an insult.”
Biden also criticized House Republicans set to shut down the federal government this weekend, saying: “You can’t be playing politics while our troops stand in the breach.”