By Zachary Cohen and Michael Conte, CNN
Updated: Wed, 21 Jul 2021 19:49:19 GMT
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said Wednesday he wouldn't comment on a recent book excerpt alleging he and other top officials were so deeply concerned that former President Donald Trump and his allies might attempt a coup after the November 2020 election they informally planned for ways to stop it.
"I'm not going to comment on what's in any of those books," Milley said during a press conference at the Pentagon where he was repeatedly pressed on a myriad of claims about his relationship with the former President.
However, Milley did stress that he and the other top Pentagon leaders have always "maintained" their oaths to the Constitution and not to any individual, making clear that "the military did not and will not and should not ever get involved in domestic politics."
"I want you to know, and I want everyone to know, I want America to know, that the United States military is an apolitical institution. We were then; we are now. And our oath is to the Constitution, not to any individual at all," he said.
"We don't arbitrate elections. That's the job of the judiciary and the legislature and the American people. It is not the job of the US military. We stayed out of politics. We're an apolitical institution," Milley added.
The top US general also reiterated that he has always presented the best military advice to Trump and President Joe Biden. "I always personally provided the best military professional advice to President Trump previously, to President Biden or any other president."
Milley's comments come as he features prominently in a slew of scathing books released this summer detailing the final months of Trump's time in office.
Excerpts from those books have transformed Milley's image from Trump's hand-picked general -- who accompanied the President to his infamous photo-op at St. John's Church during the George Floyd protests -- to one of the former President's harshest critics.
According to the upcoming book from Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, "I Alone Can Fix It," Milley was deeply concerned Trump and his allies might attempt a coup after the election, and he compared Trump's lies about election fraud to the rhetoric used by Adolf Hitler as he rose to power in Germany.
"This is a Reichstag moment," Milley told his aides, according to the book. "The gospel of the Führer."
Those startling comments were only the latest instance where Milley found himself in the middle of major political fights in both the Trump era and during the fallout from the January 6 insurrection.
Another book by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender says Milley repeatedly pushed back on Trump's argument that the military should intervene violently in order to quell the civil unrest that erupted around the country last year and was the lone voice of opposition to those demands during heated Oval Office discussions.
Titled "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost," the book reveals new details about how Milley repeatedly intervened as Trump's language became increasingly violent during Oval Office meetings as protests in Seattle and Portland began to receive attention from cable new outlets.
"Just shoot them," Trump said on multiple occasions inside the Oval Office, according to the excerpts.
When Milley and then-Attorney General William Barr would push back, Trump toned it down, but only slightly, Bender adds.
While Milley has sought to distance himself from politics, Wednesday's press conference once again underscores how he and other top officials are still grappling with the fallout from Trump's presidency months after he left office.
After the new revelations about Milley's actions and views surrounding the January 6 insurrection came out earlier this month, Trump wasted little time before trashing Milley in a lengthy statement calling for him to be fired.
"I never threatened, or spoke about, to anyone, a coup of our Government," Trump said. "If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is General Mark Milley."
As was evident Wednesday, Milley does not plan to publicly address the issues raised in the book, a defense official close to him previously told CNN.
The official acknowledged that during the final weeks of the Trump administration, Milley engaged in activities and communications not part of the traditional portfolio of a Joint Chiefs chairman, carrying a heavier political load to keep Trump in check. While Milley "tried his hardest to actively stay out of politics," the official said, if the events that occurred brought him into that arena temporarily, "so be it."
"He's not going to sit in silence while people try to use the military against Americans," the official said.
Standing alongside Milley on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin defended the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling reporters, "He doesn't have a political bone in his body."
"I've known the chairman for a long time. We've fought together. We've served a couple of times in the same unit. So I'm not guessing at his character," Austin said. "And I think, I clearly have tremendous faith and confidence in the chairman."
"It's really important to me that this department remain apolitical. And so we're going to do everything within our power to make sure that our troops, our leadership, both civilian and military, remain focused on the task at hand, and understand that they're not a part of the political apparatus here," Austin added.