How Trump’s generals fought back

Download Audio
In this handout provided by The White House, President Donald Trump participates in a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in his conference room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 4, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Tia Dufour/The White House via Getty Images)
In this handout provided by The White House, President Donald Trump participates in a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in his conference room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 4, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Tia Dufour/The White House via Getty Images)

There are new details about what Donald Trump really thought about top leadership at the Pentagon.

"He felt that his generals, as he called them, the American generals were not as loyal as he perceived the Nazi generals under Hitler to be," Susan Glasser, staff writer at the New Yorker, says.

A new story in the New Yorker shows how Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, worked to prevent Trump from using the military to overturn the 2020 election.

But not everyone thinks Milley’s a hero.

Today, On Point: The generals and Donald Trump.


Susan Glasser, staff writer at The New Yorker. Co-author of the forthcoming book The Divider: Trump in the White House. (@sbg1)

Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent at the New York Times. Co-author of the forthcoming book The Divider: Trump in the White House. (@peterbakernyt)

Also Featured

John Gans, chief Pentagon speechwriter 2014-17. Visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Author of White House Warriors.

Interview Highlights

On the resignation letter Mark Milley never sent

Susan Glasser: "It's really remarkable, even if you already knew in a general sense about this rift, to hear the language. I mean, this is so unprecedented. You have basically the top Pentagon uniformed military official in this country saying that the president, United States, is not only trying to weaponize the military against the American people, but that he's also a threat to the international order. That he doesn't believe in many of the values that the United States military fought against in World War II. When they fought against fascism and fought against Nazism.

"And in fact, Milley writes in that unsent letter that he believes that Trump subscribes to many of the theories that we fought against. And it's just remarkable to hear in his own voice, in effect, what the chairman thought. And, of course, that colors the decisions that he makes over the next six tumultuous months that are the end, the almost catastrophic end of the Trump presidency."

On the relationship between the the Joint Chiefs chairman and the president

Peter Baker: "What's extraordinary about it, among many things, is that he had lobbied to get this job. In other words, he was seen by his fellow officers as kind of quietly, subtly, maybe, but campaigning, in effect, to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, even though he knew at that point what President Trump was all about.

"And so his break with him at this point in Lafayette Square had been a remarkable turnaround. He had thought he could manage this president. He thought he could succeed in this role. And he was discovering in that summer of 2020 that he couldn't, or at least he felt maybe he couldn't. That's why he writes this letter of resignation.

"Now, as Susan mentioned, he didn't actually submit it. And this is a choice that so many people ended up making in the Trump administration. Do you quit on principle at some point, or do you stay around because you think that A, your replacement might be worse. Or, B, you have some ability to control or keep things from spiraling in a way that you think is dangerous.

"And he comes to the conclusion that it's more important for him to stay in order to protect the military from politicization. He says, I'm going to fight from the inside, not it doesn't mean he's going to fight lawful orders. He is a military officer. He obeys his commander in chief, but he believes that this commander in chief wants to use the military for political gains, possibly even to hold on to power after the election."

On Trump's view of his top generals

Susan Glasser: "There is a through line that goes all the way back to the beginning of the presidency. And I think that was an important kind of finding in the book. ,That the confrontation with Mark Milley does not come out of the blue and it's not limited to him. It's not personality conflict. It's a fundamental difference in world values, in personal values, in the ethos of the nonpartisan, independent U.S. military vs. Donald Trump, who literally on the first day of his presidency, January 20th, 2017, he talks about, quote-unquote, 'my generals.'

"And he had this almost obsession with wanting to use it to co-opt the symbols of military strength, as he saw them, in service of his personal image making and the image making of his presidency. And so that conflict, you know, is early on. And he chooses, as you recall, John Kelly, a retired four star Marine general, as first his homeland security secretary. Then he elevates him to his second White House chief of staff. He's got Joe Dunford as his first chairman of the Joint Chiefs, another four star Marine general.

"And, of course, Jim Mattis, his first defense secretary, a retired four star Marine general who had worked very closely with Dunford and Kelly, which, of course, Trump has no clue about. And that is the seed of many future conflicts. And there's this incredible scene that we learned about doing the book in which early in Kelly's tenure as White House chief of staff, Donald Trump basically says to him, Well, you know, how come, you know, you bleeping generals, how come you're not more like the German generals?

"Kelly is still early in his tenure. He can't believe what he's hearing. What do you mean? The German generals. Trump says, you know, in World War II, the Nazi generals. And they were totally loyal to Hitler. And Kelly says, no, they weren't. What are you talking about? You do know that they tried to kill Hitler three times, right? No, no, no, Donald Trump says. They were completely loyal.

"And of course, that's what Trump wanted in his own generals. And so, again, it's just ... such a fundamental disjuncture. And it underscores something, of course, that we're seeing even in today's ongoing controversies with Donald Trump. The effort to politicize institutions of American life that are not political, the effort to personalize institutions that are not meant to be personal. And it's just ... fundamental. What kind of American president admires Nazi generals?"

On Milley's internal struggles in the Trump administration 

Susan Glasser: "... The Joint Chiefs, as an entity, was created after World War II, as an institution. Really, since then, in the late 1940s, or maybe during the final days of Richard Nixon in 1974. But other than that, there's essentially no road map for the kind of conflict and resistance from the inside that Milley ultimately chose after June 1, 2020, and that catastrophic photo-op.

"Now, I should point out that Trump made a mistake about Milley and who he was. A classic mistake, by the way, that Trump made. You know, he didn't do a lot of research or thinking about who these people were. It served his purpose at the time, and he saw it as a jab at Mattis. But, you know, Milley also made a mistake. But it's not that he thought, he was under any illusions about Donald Trump. And in fact, the reporting that we did for the book suggests that he was well aware of, you know, Trump's many flaws.

"And there's this sort of famously catastrophic photo-op that Trump has in October of 2019 with the congressional leaders. Milley is two weeks into actually serving in the job, and that's the one where Nancy Pelosi stands up at the table and she said, All roads with you lead to Putin. And she marches out. And the photograph of that confrontation was released. And people will remember Pelosi, but they may not remember sitting next to Donald Trump is Mark Milley, two weeks into the job. His head is bowed low. His hands are clenched together. He looks like he wants to just sink into the floor and, you know, be gone.

"It's just clearly, it's an image of a man in agony. And that's basically day one of his service as Trump's chairman. So flash forward to the Lafayette Square incident and this incredible kind of road to Damascus moment. Milley makes a choice, and part of it is informed by the fact that he is different than many of the other Trump advisors who agonize about whether to quit or not. There's always, of course, a level of self-aggrandizement and ambition in Washington, in any of these jobs.

"These people put themselves forward. But in Milley's case, there's also the question of, What is the right thing to do for the uniformed military? And we were able to speak with a number of those that Milley sought advice from in the days after Lafayette Square. And they told him an interesting thing, which is that we don't have a tradition of resignation in protest at the upper levels of the uniformed military, in part because that was seen as possibly politicizing the military.

"Right? If you just quit over orders by the commander in chief, even unsavory ones. They also told him that it was more important for him, and the then defense secretary, Mark Esper, essentially, to hold the line. And they had to be fired, because then it would be very clear to the rest of the world what was going on.

"And so he basically heeded that advice. But then how he chose to implement it. You know, he was really concerned, far before many others were, about the possibility of post-election violence, and even Trump contemplating martial law after the election. And of course, sadly, he was more right about that than many others who discounted that possibility, including many critics of Donald Trump."

On Milley's experience of Jan. 6th

Peter Baker: "He was already meeting at that point with a member of the Biden transition team, because he knew that the election was over. He understood there was going to be a transition. And he was trying to do what he could to facilitate, as you normally would, between administrations. And, you know, they were in his office when the pictures began showing up on on television. He rushes into the defense secretary's office and says, basically, you know, we need to get acting. We need to get moving, get these people down there to stop what's going on.

"And the context of this is really important because a lot of questions have been asked. Why was the military slow to respond on January 6th? And I think that the context of June 1st, which we talked about earlier, weighs heavily. The military is very nervous, Milley in particular, about being used in this post-election period in any way that might be seen as promoting an unconstitutional holding on to power by the ousted president of the United States.

"And I think that what the president had apparently said just days earlier to Chris Miller, the new defense secretary, he had installed. Was, are you going to make sure it's safe for my people? That's the way Milley told people he heard the conversation. Not is it going to be safe for Congress ... or safe for the police, but safe for my people. He was concerned about the supporters he was going to send to the Capitol, to demand that he stay in office. And so I think that that context is important to understand when we look at what happened on January 6th, in terms of the military."

You write about one of the most staunchly pro-Trump members of Trump's cabinet, secretary of State Mike Pompeo. By late November, early December, he and Attorney General Bill Barr and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley had agreed to make daily morning phone calls, to make sure the country would remain steady until the January inauguration of Joe Biden.

Susan Glasser: "This was one of the more stunning things to me, when I first learned about it. So it has its origins, actually, on November 9th, the very night when Mark Esper is fired. Esper was a classmate of Mike Pompeo's at West Point, the class of 1986. And had worked closely with him. Pompeo, as you point out, was perhaps one of the most, with the exception of Mike Pence, kind of publicly obsequious members. And privately, too, members of the Trump cabinet. And yet he couldn't take it anymore. And he called up Mark Milley on the night of November 9th and he said, Can I come over to your house right away? They both lived in government housing at Fort Myers, right near Washington.

"And Milley says, yes. It's like 9:00 at night. And here's this incredible scene. And Mike Pompeo, you know, who, by the way, to this day is sort of trying to market himself as this sort of loyal Trumpist. Goes over there, sits down at Milley's kitchen table, and he says the crazies have taken over. And he is, according to the reporting I did, not only in his interactions with Milley, but we were able to reach several senior State Department officials who confirmed to us that Pompeo had questioned Trump's attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Was not on board with the effort to overturn the results of the election, despite publicly making a joke about it.

"You know, after he's already gone and sat down with Mark Milley, as kitchen table. The very following days, he goes into the pressroom at the State Department and he makes a joke about, There will be a transition on January 20th to a second Trump administration. And that causes a huge kerfuffle, of course. But even at that time, he's privately telling Milley the crazies have taken over. And their cooperation with each other expands as November goes on.

"And it becomes clear that Trump is not giving up his election challenge, but in fact is contemplating more and more extreme measures. And that's when Pompeo, by the way, actually proposes the 'land the plane' phone calls. And they're to include Milley, and Pompeo and Mark Meadows, who at that time is Trump's fourth and final White House chief of staff, former congressman. It's not clear at that time which side exactly Mark Meadows is on. He's telling different factions what they want to hear. And so he's telling people, like Milley and Pompeo, Oh, no, I want to get to January 20th and hand over power.

"But he's also sending text messages to Ginni Thomas, Clarence Thomas' wife, saying basically, like, I've dedicated my life to the fight to overturn the election. And so those 'land the plane' phone calls, Pompeo even confirmed them not only to his own advisors at the State Department, but he goes to dinner with Bill Barr, the attorney general, on the night of December 1st. That's an incredible day in the Trump kind of story.

"When Barr, another loyalist, as you pointed out, who's done so much to help Trump stay in power, even Barr has broken with Trump by this point, given an interview on that day to the AP saying, No, there's no evidence of election fraud sufficient to overturn the election. Trump is furious with him. They have this incredible confrontation in the White House. That very same night, he goes to dinner with Mike Pompeo at a obscure Italian restaurant, in an out of the way strip mall in Virginia. And there Pompeo tells him all about these 'land the plane' phone calls."

Related Reading

New Yorker: "Inside the War Between Trump and His Generals" — "In the summer of 2017, after just half a year in the White House, Donald Trump flew to Paris for Bastille Day celebrations thrown by Emmanuel Macron, the new French President."

This program aired on August 12, 2022.


Headshot of John Ringer

John Ringer Freelance Producer, On Point
John Ringer was a freelance producer for On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



More from On Point

Listen Live