Opinion: With MAGA-led chaos in Congress, Gen. Milley’s warning rings loud and clear

File photo/Pete Marovich/The New York Times / Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23, 2023.
File photo/Pete Marovich/The New York Times / Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23, 2023.

In recent days, the country has been subjected to a chilling preview of what MAGA rule would look like if Donald Trump returns to power, as America's allies looked on in shock while its enemies had good reason to cheer.

Having failed to shut down the government, but succeeded in axing Ukraine aid, a handful of Trump acolytes on Capitol Hill set out to cripple the U.S. government by other means. Led by MAGA Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose narcissism trumps Trump, these GOP hard-liners axed their own House speaker — ousting Kevin McCarthy with no sign they can find a successor.

Trump, meanwhile, was denouncing the judge who ruled his companies had engaged in big-time fraud. To top that, the former president effectively accused the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America's top military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, of treason, and posted on Truth Social that he deserved "DEATH." This outrageous threat from the likely GOP candidate for president forced Milley to take " appropriate measures " to protect himself and his family.

This MAGA madness illuminates the choice that confronts Republicans in Congress and in the voting booth: chaos or a functional government that might get legislation passed despite great differences in ideology. Does our country want a normal leader or a president who encourages violence against his opponents?

No one has clarified that choice better than Milley himself, in his parting address. Add to that the angry words of Gen. John Kelly, Trump's longest-serving chief of staff, in a statement he made recently to CNN.

Let me start with the once taciturn Kelly, who confirmed on the record many damning statements he made earlier without attribution.

He described Trump as "A person who has no idea what America stands for and has no idea what America is all about."

Kelly's barely contained rage was fueled, in part, by Trump's well-known contempt for wounded U.S. military warriors and war dead, whom he has repeatedly dismissed as "losers." Kelly confirmed that Trump had told him, on Memorial Day 2017, as they stood in Arlington National Cemetery among the graves of service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, "I don't get it. What was in it for them?"

That anger was raised to a peak by the ex-president's threat to Milley. Kelly derided Trump as "A person who cavalierly suggests that a selfless warrior who has served his county for 40 years in peacetime and war should lose his life for treason — in expectation that someone will take action."

"A person who admires autocrats and murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law.

"There is nothing more that can be said," Kelly concluded. "God help us."

Kelly's fury reflects a host of belated critiques by an astonishing number of former Trump officials such as former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who told CNN in November, "He puts himself before the country."

Milley and Kelly had to cope with Trump's admiration for dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, who know that Trump clings to his repeatedly disproved belief that he alone can deal with them personally, without any background knowledge of the issues.

And as Milley laid out, the biggest domestic threat they faced was Trump's belief that the military is his personal tool. This dangerous fantasy flies in the face of the Constitution and spits on the principles by which the military abides.

Milley ran afoul of Trump's wrath when he apologized for being unwittingly dragooned, while in uniform, into a Trump political photo op in Lafayette Square, after the president had ordered a peaceful protest there dispersed with force. As the Pentagon's top officer, Milley faced his greatest challenge over Trump's refusal to admit he lost to Joe Biden and his efforts to overturn the election.

As Jeffrey Goldberg lays out in a must-read article in the November issue of the Atlantic, Milley rebuffed efforts by Trump loyalists to activate the obscure 1807 Insurrection Act against his opponents. He worried Trump might trigger a war — perhaps against Iran's nuclear facilities — in order to stay in office. This fear was shared by Esper, who tasked Milley to ensure his Chinese counterpart that the United States government was stable.

Yet most of all, Kelly and Milley worried about Trump's disdain for the military's duty to the Constitution, and his insistence that it served him.

In his parting speech, the departing chief laid out the reality that Trump still refuses to admit.

"We are unique among the world's militaries," Milley said. "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 a queen, or a tyrant or a dictator."

"And we don't take an oath to a wannabe dictator," he spat. "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."

The ouster of McCarthy engineered by a small MAGA cabal, the damning words from Trump's mouth — along with the chilling critiques from Milley and Kelly — confront GOP legislators with the choice they fear to make. Will they keep appeasing a "wannabe dictator" and his acolytes or fight for responsible leadership?

The MAGA-led chaos in Congress should (but probably won't) jolt them into making up their minds.

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