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Trump Picks Milley For Joint Chiefs Chairman: A Bold Reformer — But Will They Clash?

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Army photo

Gen. Mark Milley

WASHINGTON: President Trump has one thing in common with his pick for Joint Chiefs chairman, the current Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley: When they speak, they get your attention.

While previous Army chiefs, all admirable men, tended to be quiet, bland, or outright inarticulate, General Milley erupted into the job in 2015 with a gift for rhetoric and tremendous energy for reform. In the three years since, he won over National Guard activists who’d feuded bitterly with his predecessor, created new advisor brigades and experimental units, launched the biggest reorganization of the Army in 40 years, and set clear R&D prioritiesThousand-mile missiles! Robotic tanks! Super-fast helicopters! Bigger bullets! — that Trump’s political appointees then embraced with big budget boosts.

Oh, and West Point finally won the Army-Navy game, twice, after 14 years of losing. We’ll see how the game plays out tomorrow, when Trump is supposed to announce Milley’s nomination for JCS chairman on the sidelines.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster with President Trump

That sort of showmanship would be distinctly uncomfortable for most prior Army chiefs or for the current, resolutely low-key chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford. But Milley, despite a reputation as a “soldier’s soldier,” a gruff old grunt with more time in war zones than in Washington, has both dramatic flair and the intellectual firepower to back it up. He’s done more to change the Army than any single soldier in decades.

But there’s the catch. Milley actually changes things. He’s outspoken, even blunt, though I suspect there’s much more calculation behind his language than he lets on. And he gets attention. All these qualities that endear him to Trump today could set him up for dramatic conflict later — over Trump’s proposed defense cuts, for example, or Milley’s relentless push to counter Russia.

Trump certainly fell in and out of love fast with the last outspoken warrior-intellectual he hired, short-lived National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Milley could be headed for a similar dramatic breakup. Or he could be ground down slowly like Marine Gen. John Kelly, who’s counting down his last days as chief of staff. Or he could spend years fighting rumors of conflict with the White House and his imminent resignation, punctuated by the occasional public revolt over the budget, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Indeed, of the four much-heralded generals Trump picked for high positions early in his term, he seems to speak most highly of the one who never got into office, scandal-stricken Mike Flynn.

Even after 20 years covering the Army, I have no idea how this will go. But I can promise you it will be worth watching.

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