When President Donald Trump’s top national security advisers briefed Congress last week on intelligence used to justify killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, many lawmakers bristled at the defiant attitude of Trump’s team — particularly his top general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.
According to numerous people in the room, Milley was the most vocal defender of the intelligence. Multiple Hill Democrats said Milley came across as trying to match the bombast of the President in defending the strike.
One Democratic lawmaker told CNN they were turned off by Milley’s pitch on behalf of the administration, particularly when he insisted that the intelligence was “exquisite.” The lawmaker argued Milley’s rhetoric was divorced from how intelligence is actually assessed.
“General Milley went out of his way to defend the intel behind the QS strike as so utterly compelling,” a Democratic aide in the room told CNN. “It was embarrassing.” Not everyone reacted that way. Many Republicans and some Democrats came away impressed by Milley and defended him as an “honest broker” in the words of Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine.
Still, the briefing — and indeed the strike on Soleimani itself— marks a critical moment for the 61-year-old four-star general. At the peak of an illustrious military career, Milley’s non-partisan reputation is being put to the test as he defends the most controversial foreign policy decision of Donald Trump’s presidency.
In doing so, Milley has come dangerously close to wading into political realms that are usually out of bounds for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who is typically there to provide non-partisan military advice.
According to interviews with half a dozen former Pentagon and military officials, the consensus is that Milley is a brilliant and thoughtful military tactician, a scholarly thinker underneath a gritty exterior who has proven himself during numerous combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The Chairman remains apolitical and focused solely on providing his best military advice to the President and the Secretary of Defense,” Col. DeDe Halfhill, spokesperson for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN.
Yet some raised questions about Milley’s ability to navigate the fraught politics that come with advising a mercurial president. Others on the national security team, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, have themselves struggled to defend in public Trump’s shifting rationales for the Soleimani strike.