Donated human corneas are scarce in places where they’re most needed. A version made from pig collagen could help meet demand.
MORE THAN 12 million people worldwide are blind because of disease or damage to the cornea, the transparent outer layer of the eye. A transplant from a deceased human donor can restore vision, but demand is so high that only about one in 70 patients receive one. The need is greatest in rural or economically developing countries like India or Iran, where there’s a shortage of corneas due to a lack of eye banks with cold storage. Without these special facilities, a fresh donor cornea must be used within five to seven days.
“The number one reason for why it’s difficult to do corneal transplants in these places is because corneas expire before doctors can place them,” says Esen Akpek, a professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s very expensive to do eye banking because you need a cold chain.”
As an alternative, researchers in Sweden have developed a bioengineered version made of collagen purified from pig skin that resembles the protein found in a human cornea. Bioengineered corneas could be made more readily available and may also have a longer shelf life than donor tissue. In a small trial, the implant restored or improved sight in 20 patients who were blind or visually impaired from a corneal condition called keratoconus. The results were published today in Nature Biotechnology.
“We think these could be customized and mass-produced, as opposed to donor corneas, which are often not very good quality because they are obtained from deceased patients who are elderly,” says study author Mehrdad Rafat, a senior lecturer of biomedical engineering at Linköping University. (Rafat founded a company called LinkoCare Life Sciences, which manufactured the bioengineered corneas used in the study.) Among other customizations, the size and thickness could be adjusted to accommodate the patient’s eye and the type of condition they have.
To make the implant, researchers isolated collagen molecules from pig skin, separating out all of the other biological components of the tissue. They added bonds between the collagen fibers to strengthen them and wove them into a hydrogel scaffold to mimic a human cornea.
Transplanting a cornea from a human donor requires a surgery to completely remove the recipient’s damaged tissue, and it is performed using expensive surgical equipment not available in many parts of the world. But for the study, the researchers made a small incision in the patients’ eyes and slipped the bioengineered corneas over their existing ones, making it a simpler procedure.
Rafat and his colleagues ran the trial in India and Iran on patients with keratoconus, which causes the normally round cornea to gradually thin and bulge outward into a cone shape. The condition causes vision to become blurry and distorted and can lead to blindness over time. It affects about 2.3 percent of the population in India, or 30 million people, and 4 percent of Iran’s population, or 3.4 million people.
If keratoconus is diagnosed before the cornea becomes severely scarred and irregular, doctors can maintain vision with special contact lenses and a procedure called corneal cross-linking, which uses UV light to strengthen the cornea and reduces the progression of the disease. For the study, the authors selected participants whose condition couldn’t be corrected with custom-fitted lenses due to eye discomfort and pain.
After their transplants, the researchers followed the volunteers for two years. They concluded that the implants were safe to use and restored the thickness and curvature of the recipients’ natural corneas. Before the operation, 14 of the 20 participants were legally blind, and the others were visually impaired. Two years later, three of the participants who had been blind prior to the study had 20/20 vision, thanks to a combination of the bioengineered corneas and the use of contact lenses or glasses. For the others, their vision improved to an average of 20/26 with contacts (in the Indian group) and 20/58 with glasses (in the Iranian group).
Christopher Starr, an ophthalmologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says that while the study was small, the results are promising. “The postoperative visual gains were quite impressive—as good, if not better, than traditional transplantation techniques,” he says. The participants also needed fewer eye drops and a shorter course of immunosuppressant drugs than is typically needed with transplantation from human donor corneas.
There have been other attempts at cornea implants. Artificial versions made of plastic exist, but they’re used when a patient has had one or more failed donor transplants. Because they’re plastic, these implants don’t integrate into a patient’s own eye like human tissue would, raising the risk of infection. “Biointegration has always been a huge challenge,” Starr says. “Without tight biointegration of a device, there is a much higher risk of bacteria getting into the eye and causing a rare but catastrophic infection called endophthalmitis, which often leads to permanent irreversible blindness.”
Immune system rejection, in which the body attacks the implant as a foreign object, is also a risk with any type of implant. But Starr says there may also be a lower risk of rejection with the bioengineered cornea, compared to human donor tissue, because the implant has been stripped of living cells.
Still, the process of inserting a bioengineered replacement over the original cornea, instead of swapping it out, might have some limitations. Akpek is skeptical that this kind of implant will be able to treat very severe cases of keratoconus, in which the cornea becomes clouded. “By just putting a transparent layer onto the cornea, they are strengthening, thickening, and flattening the cornea, but they’re not treating an opacified cornea, which is the advanced stage of keratoconus,” she says. For the bioengineered implant to work in these patients, she thinks the damaged cornea would also need to be removed—but that requires special training and technology that’s not available everywhere.
And she points out that getting a transplant first requires a diagnosis of corneal disease, which can be difficult in low-income areas where people don’t have access to eye specialists. “This doesn’t solve the problem, which is poverty,” says Akpek. But if a bioengineered version is cheaper and more accessible than using donor corneas, she says, it has a shot at preventing blindness in more people.
Rafat’s company is planning a larger trial of patients with more advanced disease. They also want to test the implant in people with other types of corneal blindness. One unknown is how long the bioengineered corneas will last after they’re transplanted. Donor corneas can last 10 years or more if there are no complications. “Our aim is to have a permanent implant,” Rafat says.
It Is Time to End Washington’s Decades of Deference to Moscow
By Alexander Vindman August 8, 2022
For the last three decades, the United States has bent over backward to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns and allay its anxieties. The United States has done so at the expense of relations with more willing partners in Eastern Europe—Ukraine in particular. Instead of supporting the early stirrings of Ukrainian independence in 1991, for example, Washington sought to preserve the failing Soviet Union out of misplaced fear that it might collapse into civil war. And instead of imposing heavy costs on Russia for its authoritarianism at home and antidemocratic activities abroad, including in Ukraine, Washington has mostly looked the other way in a fruitless effort to deal cooperatively with Moscow.
The justification for this Russia-centric approach to Eastern Europe has fluctuated between hopes for a good relationship with the Kremlin and fears that the bilateral relationship could devolve into another cold war—or worse, a hot one. But the result has been U.S. national security priorities based on unrealistic aspirations instead of actual outcomes, particularly during moments of crisis. Even as evidence mounted that Russia’s belligerent behavior would not allow for a stable or predictable relationship, U.S. policy stayed the course, to the detriment of both U.S. national security interests and the security of Russia’s neighbors.
One would think that Russia’s war in Ukraine would have demanded a shift in U.S. strategic thinking. Instead, whether out of habit, reflex, or even prejudice (thinking of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” or of Ukrainians as “little Russians”), the primary decision makers in charge of U.S. foreign policy still privilege Russia over Ukraine.
The war has now reached an inflection point. The United States must decide whether it will help Ukraine approach the negotiating table with as much leverage as it can or watch Russia reorganize and resupply its troops, adapt its tactics, and commit to a long-term war of attrition. If Ukrainian democracy is going to prevail, U.S. foreign policymakers must finally prioritize dealing with Ukraine as it is rather than Russia as they would like it to be.
“THE UNGROUP” AND ITS LEGACY
Prioritizing Ukraine will require breaking the long-standing tradition of Russocentrism in trilateral U.S.-Ukrainian-Russian relations. In its contemporary form, that tradition dates back to 1989, when senior members of U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s administration set up a secret group of interagency staff members to plan for the possible dissolution of the Soviet Union. On July 18 of that year, Robert Gates, who was then deputy U.S. national security adviser, sent a memo to Bush titled “Thinking About the Unthinkable: Instability and Political Turbulence in the USSR.” As Gates recalled in his 2007 memoir, From the Shadows, he argued that the United States “should very quietly begin some contingency planning as to possible U.S. responses, actions and policies in the event of leadership or internal policy changes or widespread ethnic violence and repression—and consider the implications for us of such developments.”
Soon thereafter, Gates tasked Condoleezza Rice, then the senior director for Soviet and East European affairs on the National Security Council, with assembling an “ungroup” that would take on this “unthinkable” task. (At the time, official U.S. policy still focused on preserving the Soviet Union and supporting reform efforts, so the ungroup’s name reflected both its seemingly impossible mandate and its Top Secret status.) The team Rice pulled together included trusted officials from the Department of Defense, Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Among them were Dennis Ross, then the director of policy planning at the State Department; Fritz Ermarth, the chair of the National Intelligence Council; Robert Blackwill, the national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union; Paul Wolfowitz, the undersecretary of defense for policy; and Eric Edelman, an assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for Soviet and East European affairs.
Working in secrecy, these officials considered possible scenarios for Soviet collapse and potential U.S. responses. Written evidence of the group’s deliberations—or even its existence—is sparse. (I have mainly relied here on memoirs by people who served as high-level officials in the George H. W. Bush administration, some of which contain details of the ungroup without explicitly naming it, and on interviews with five former officials who were either participants in the group or had direct knowledge of its work.) But the conclusions the ungroup reached are clearly imprinted not just on U.S. foreign policy in the last years of the Soviet Union but also on U.S. priorities in the newly independent Soviet republics. The three greatest threats the United States would face in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the ungroup predicted, would be the proliferation of new nuclear weapons states; “loose nukes,” or the loss, theft, or sale of weapons-grade fissile material, especially to nonstate actors or countries with clandestine nuclear weapons programs; and conflicting loyalties in the Soviet military that might lead to civil war in the newly independent republics or in Russia itself.
U.S. policymakers must deal with Ukraine as it is rather than Russia as they would like it to be.
When the unthinkable became inevitable and the Soviet Union began to crumble, mitigating these threats became the overarching goal of U.S. policy toward the former Soviet bloc. The United States pursued denuclearization in the former Soviet republics and partnership with an ideally strong, centralized Russian government in Moscow. If both goals could be accomplished, so the thinking went, then widespread ethnonationalist conflicts could be averted and command and control of the former Soviet arsenal could be maintained in a stable, whole Russia, thereby reducing the risks of a nuclear catastrophe.
The ungroup didn’t oppose the independence of the Soviet republics, but its fear of worst-case scenarios contributed to missteps and missed opportunities. For instance, it is hard not to hear echoes of the ungroup’s warnings in Bush’s infamous “Chicken Kyiv” speech in the Ukrainian capital on August 1, 1991. Mere weeks before Ukraine’s parliament adopted an act declaring the country’s independence, Bush declined to support the country’s right to self-determination, warning instead of “suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” In line with the ungroup’s thinking, he privileged a carefully managed Soviet decline over the wishes of Ukrainians, who would go on to overwhelming vote for independence in a referendum at the end of the year.
Bush’s words provoked a visceral response from Ukrainians. For the Ukrainians who still remember the speech, or at least know of it, Bush’s explicit preference for the Soviet Union’s survival and his willingness to openly reject Ukrainian aspirations for statehood and independence were symbolic failures and practical indicators of where Ukraine fell in the hierarchy of U.S. relationships. One might argue that it was reasonable for the Bush administration to prioritize its relationship with the Soviet Union, which was, by any measure, a greater power than any of its potential successor states. It had enormous energy resources, a colossal military-industrial complex, and the ability to create massive headaches for Washington. But managing Soviet and later Russian threats did not have to come at the expense of engagement with the republics. Washington could have pursued both objectives at the same time, adapting to the Soviet Union’s decline while also hedging against future Russian irredentism by supporting self-determination in the emerging post-Soviet states.
Bush’s speech in Kyiv was an ignominious start to the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship.
Instead, Bush’s speech in Kyiv was an ignominious start to the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship that could have easily been avoided. Bush could have stuck to platitudes about the promotion of peace, democracy, and self-determination and omitted the patronizing warning about civil conflict. After all, the United States had little influence over Ukraine’s decision to seek independence or the Soviet Union’s longevity. In the end, neither outcome conformed to U.S. policy preferences.
The Bush administration wasn’t fully united behind this overly cautious approach toward the collapsing Soviet Union; there were dissenters, both inside and outside the ungroup. For instance, as Michael McFaul and James Goldgeier note in Power and Purpose, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney advocated policies that would prevent the reemergence of a Soviet or post-Soviet threat in Eurasia. He thought the United States should seize the opportunity to undermine a great power rival and extend democracy and Western security institutions farther east.
Cheney’s arguments stopped short of predicting a Russian resurgence—something that was difficult to conceive of against the backdrop of immense economic, social, and political problems in Russia—but they foreshadowed key developments in U.S. foreign policy during the post-Soviet years. One episode from Gates’s memoir stands out: On September 5, 1991, a month after Bush’s Chicken Kyiv blunder, Cheney clashed with Secretary of State James Baker over the effects of the Soviet Union’s impending collapse. According to Gates, Cheney argued that the breakup was “in our interest,” adding that “if it is voluntary, some sort of association of the republics will happen. If democracy fails, we’re better off if the remaining pieces of the USSR are small.” Baker’s response was indicative of the more dominant strain of thinking within the ungroup: “Peaceful breakup is in our interest, not another Yugoslavia.”
According to the former officials I interviewed, those more in line with Cheney’s thinking, including Wolfowitz and Edelman, came to view post-Soviet European security as a zero-sum game with an enfeebled but still dangerous geopolitical rival in Moscow. They also saw a newly independent, vulnerable Ukraine in need of assistance and recognized that, if strengthened, it could serve as a bulwark against Russian revanchism. But these were minority views. Most influential players in the national security establishment agreed with Baker that U.S.-Russian relations had to form the bedrock of any post–Cold War security structure. They believed that if they could get Russia right, the country would become a bastion of stability in the region and even contribute to positive outcomes in Ukraine and elsewhere.
BLINDED BY THE MIGHT
This fixation on dealing with Moscow has proved remarkably durable. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all built their regional policies around their hopes and fears for Russia—hopes for a cooperative relationship and fears of another cold war. Now, President Joe Biden’s administration has come full circle with a risk assessment of Russia’s war in Ukraine that could have been drawn up by the ungroup, one that is more focused on the internal Russian consequences of the conflict than on the consequences for Ukraine itself. The Soviet Union is long gone, but concerns about instability, Russia’s nuclear arsenal, regional conflict, and bilateral confrontation remain. To avoid provoking Moscow, the United States has implicitly acknowledged Russia’s influence in an imagined post-Soviet geopolitical space in Ukraine. It has also often filtered its decisions about Ukraine policy through the prism of Russia, balancing its objectives in Ukraine against its need for Russia’s cooperation on arms control, North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation, climate change, the Arctic, and space programs, among other things.
By comparison, the United States has been largely ambivalent toward Ukraine. It has engaged with the country when the two countries’ interests and values aligned. For instance, during the Clinton era, the United States made a clear push for democratization and denuclearization. But once denuclearization was attained and democratization had stagnated under Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the impetus for bilateral engagement declined. During Clinton’s second term and during the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States shifted away from Kyiv and toward collaboration with Moscow.
Misguided hope for a strategic partnership with a reformed Russia—or at the very least, a stable and predictable relationship with Moscow—seemed to outweigh much more achievable U.S. interests and investments in Ukraine in these years. The United States bought into the myth of Russian exceptionalism and deluded itself with distorted visions of the bilateral relationship, largely ignoring the signs of authoritarian consolidation within Russia and failing to heed the warnings from partners in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Even worse, because of its desire to accommodate Russia, the United States dismissed democratic progress in Ukraine—for instance, in the aftermath of pro-democratic movements in 2004–5 and 2013–14—and undermined prospects for a more fruitful long-term relationship with Kyiv. U.S. policymakers justified this approach on the grounds that drawing Russia in as a responsible member of the international community would enable democratization in the region. Later, when Russia’s lurch toward authoritarianism became undeniable, they justified it on the basis of stability, succumbing to fears of a return to Cold War–era tensions.
The United States was not necessarily wrong to pursue a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia. Where it erred was in continuing to pursue this objective long after there was no realistic chance of success, which should have been obvious by 2004, when Russia interfered in Ukraine’s elections on behalf of its preferred candidate, or at the very latest by 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. Instead of looking for more cooperative partners, however, U.S. policymakers continued their futile courtship of Kremlin leadership. As a result, they passed up opportunities to invest in the U.S. relationship with Ukraine, which was always a more promising engine of democratization in the region.
For most of the last 30 years, Kyiv has been a more willing U.S. partner than Moscow. But Washington chose not to see this. Had it been more receptive to Ukrainian overtures and sensitive to Ukrainian concerns, the United States might have offered something more than vague “security assurances” in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which accompanied Ukraine’s fateful decision to give up the nuclear weapons it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, the agreement—signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States—required only consultations and a commitment to seek UN Security Council action in the event of violations (an obvious flaw, considering Russia’s veto power in that institution).
Other early attempts at bilateral cooperation came only at Ukraine’s insistence. In 1996, for instance, Kuchma requested the establishment of a special binational commission, named for him and U.S. Vice President Al Gore, to increase cooperation on trade, economic development, and security issues, among other things, as part of a closer strategic partnership. Although the Gore-Kuchma Commission was modeled after a similar U.S.-Russian commission, the dialogue it spawned never produced a real strategic partnership. Engagement with Russia was a major U.S. priority; engagement with Kyiv was an afterthought. After all, outcomes in Ukraine were still viewed as dependent upon outcomes in Russia.
The 2004–5 Orange Revolution offered another opportunity for cooperation. After thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators took to the streets to protest a fraudulent presidential runoff election, paving the way for a free and fair vote two months later, the United States could have provided greater financial and technical assistance to Ukrainian reform efforts and nurtured Ukrainian ambitions for European and transatlantic integration. A stronger partnership might have prevented the political infighting and failed reforms that eventually fueled popular disappointment with the pro-European government of President Viktor Yushchenko.
For most of the last 30 years, Kyiv has been a more willing U.S. partner than Moscow.
Instead, the United States opted for a policy no man’s land. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration pushed for the alliance to welcome Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO. But the United States and other NATO members declined to spell out what Ukraine would need to do to accede, and they refused to draw up a membership action plan. The resulting declaration produced the worst possible balance of provocation and assurance, giving Russia a new grievance to exploit but making Ukraine no more secure.
These failures had painful consequences for Ukraine. If Yushchenko’s reforms had generally succeeded, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian candidate who was defeated after the Orange Revolution, might not have won the 2010 presidential election. Without a Yanukovych presidency, the Ukrainian government and armed forces might not have atrophied, and a rapacious kleptocracy might not have taken hold. The 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Euromaidan Revolution, might not have become necessary and Ukraine might not have become vulnerable to Russian aggression and Western ambivalence. The costs of Russia’s 2014 incursion into eastern Ukraine would have been significantly higher if the Ukrainian government and military had been intact and developing. Moreover, Russia would have had to contend with a stronger Western reaction and international opprobrium had the United States and the other signatories of the Budapest Memorandum demonstrated a stronger long-term commitment to Ukrainian democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
Even if none of this had happened, the West could have responded more forcefully to Russia’s 2014 invasion. A tougher reaction might have deterred further Russian aggression or at least better prepared Ukraine for a larger conflict. The United States and its allies helped modernize Ukraine’s military, but because they did not want to provoke Moscow, they declined to impose stiff-enough sanctions on Russia or provide heavy equipment or extensive training to Ukrainian troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated anyway. Now, the West is scrambling to make up for lost time.
The United States doesn’t deserve all the blame for these missed opportunities. Rampant corruption, political infighting, and abysmal leadership hamstrung Ukraine’s efforts at reform and development for years before the Orange Revolution. And it wasn’t until the 2013–14 revolution that Ukraine truly pivoted toward reform, transparency, democracy, and European integration. But even in the moments when Ukraine was a willing and able partner, the United States was reluctant to cooperate or upgrade U.S.-Ukrainian relations. Apprehension about the political response from Moscow always precluded a closer relationship with Kyiv.
The United States opted for a policy no man’s land toward Ukraine.
This historical failure has become more evident as former U.S. government officials have been forced to defend their records on U.S. policy toward Ukraine. There are very few who can honestly say they did all they could in the eight years since Russia’s first invasion to aid Ukraine’s reform efforts, hasten the country’s integration with Europe, harden its defenses, and bolster deterrence. Whether that is because of willful ignorance or an institutional predilection for coddling Russia, there is no excuse for neglecting Ukraine.
Part of the problem may be a decades-long hangover from the Cold War during which the expertise, education, and training of Eurasia specialists in the national security establishment have atrophied. Moreover, virtually all the experts who have worked for the U.S. government over the last 30 years were trained Sovietologists, not Ukrainianists. As a result, they were ill prepared to recognize and understand Ukraine as a fully distinct cultural, ethnolinguistic, historical, and political entity. Rather, these Sovietologists, and the Russianists and Kremlinologists who filled their shoes, saw Russia’s “near abroad” as always having been in Moscow’s orbit. The physical borders of a newly independent Ukraine might have been clearly demarcated, but the mental boundaries of Ukraine’s geopolitics were still fettered to the imperial center in Moscow.
To make matters worse, area studies also declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to a dearth of funding for the languages and specialized knowledge needed to develop regional expertise. Those Soviet studies programs that survived were rebranded as Russian and Eastern European studies, Russian and Eurasian studies, or some other variant of this formulation, suggesting an equally privileged position for Russia relative to the rest of Eurasia.
With a few exceptions (most notably, Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute), most U.S. universities train their students in the Russian language, with a focus on Russian history, culture, and literature. Although the Slavic academic community has begun to reevaluate Russocentric approaches to the study of Eurasia, this shift has not yet been felt within the U.S. government. Russian and Eastern European expertise—or what little of it exists in government—has been treated as a proxy for knowledge of Ukraine. In the time I spent on the National Security Council, from 2018 to 2020, the results of this cumulative bias in national security education became obvious. Very few officials had specialized knowledge of the region, let alone of Ukraine, and among those, even fewer had Ukrainian language skills.
UNGROUP THINK ENDURES
The bias against Ukraine and toward Russia continues to this day. The Biden administration seems unable to accept that as long as Putin is in power, the best the United States can hope for is a cold war with Russia. In the meantime, Washington should be making every effort to prevent the conflict in Ukraine from turning into a long war of attrition that will only increase the risks of regional spillover as time passes. That means supporting Ukraine in full and giving it the equipment it needs to force Russia to sue for peace, not quivering in fear every time Putin or one of his mouthpieces says something about Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. The United States is a superpower. Russia is not. The Biden administration should act as if it knows the difference and deploy its vast resources so that Ukrainians can dictate the outcome in Ukraine.
But old habits die hard. According to two former senior U.S. officials who worked on Ukraine policy, including one who served in the Biden administration, the senior leadership of the National Security Council has acted as a spiritual successor to the ungroup. NSC officials have sought to limit military support for Ukraine based on a familiar logic—that it might escalate tensions with Moscow and upset remaining hopes of normalizing relations with the Kremlin. Even as Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have pledged to give Ukraine all the support it needs to win the war, NSC officials blocked the transfer of Soviet-era jets to Ukraine, declined to provide Ukraine with sufficient long-range air defenses to clear the skies of Russian planes, withheld the quantities of long-range rocket systems and munitions needed to destroy Russian targets within the theater of war, and halted discussion on the transfer of manned and unmanned aircraft required to neutralize Russian long-range attacks on Ukraine’s cities.
According to former officials, the NSC leadership believes that the war will pose significantly greater risks to the United States and global stability if Ukraine “wins too much.” They wish to avoid the collapse of Putin’s regime for fear of the same threats the ungroup identified three decades ago: nuclear proliferation, loose nukes, and civil war. And they have sought to reduce the likelihood of a bilateral confrontation between the United States and Russia, even at the risk of greatly overstating the probability of conventional and nuclear war. “While a key goal of the United States is to do the needful to support and defend Ukraine, another key goal is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we’re heading down the road towards a third world war,” said Jake Sullivan, who heads the NSC as Biden’s national security adviser, at the Aspen Security Forum last month. In this excessive concern over how Russia might react to U.S. policies, one can see the shadow of the ungroup.
The senior leadership of the NSC has acted as a spiritual successor to the ungroup.
Planning for every contingency is a responsible way to manage national security threats, but lowest-probability worst-case scenarios should not dictate U.S. actions. By looking for off-ramps and face-saving measures, the ungroup’s successors are perpetuating indecision at the highest levels of the Biden administration. Time that is wasted worrying about unlikely Russian responses to U.S. actions would be better spent backfilling allies’ weaponry, training Ukrainians on Western capabilities, and expediting more arms transfers to Ukraine.
The United States is slowly coming around to providing some of the right capabilities, but not in the necessary quantities and not before U.S. torpor degraded Ukraine’s ability to hold and reclaim territory in southern Ukraine and the Donbas. After months of deliberation, the Biden administration finally agreed to transfer high-mobility artillery rocket systems known as HIMARS, but it has refused to provide the longest range munitions needed to hit Russia’s long-range strike capabilities and military stockpiles. It remains unclear whether the administration will eventually send the munitions that can travel 190 miles, a significant improvement over the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System munitions it is currently providing, which can travel only about 45 miles. The United States has also shied away from providing Ukraine with medium- and long-range surface-to-air missiles that could target Russian aircraft, missiles, and in the worst-case scenario, delivery systems for any possible tactical nuclear weapons. Ukraine could force Russia to the negotiating table faster if it had such capabilities. And providing sufficient weapons wouldn’t significantly undermine resourcing worst-case-scenario war plans against Russia. The U.S. government can do both.
The Biden administration has rightfully, if belatedly, begun to speak about a policy of Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, but it still has yet to match this rhetoric with the requisite military support. Thus far, the Biden administration has transferred a modest $8 billion in weapons to Ukraine. Additional security assistance has been blocked or delayed by the NSC or bogged down in the bureaucracy of the Department of Defense. Congress has passed a Lend-Lease Act for Ukraine, reviving a World War II–era program that gives the president enhanced authority to lend or lease large quantities of defense hardware to Ukraine. The Biden administration should be making greater use of this authority. It should also be leading the effort to establish logistical and sustainment centers within Ukraine, not hundreds of kilometers away in Poland and Romania but as close as possible to the eastern and southern battlefields. If Ukraine wins this war, it will be thanks not just to weapons and will but to staying power.
The United States should also do more to resolve the issue of grain exports. Russia’s blockade of Ukraine has disrupted global food-supply chains and prompted a growing list of countries to impose grain export bans. This problem will only intensify as Russian forces continue targeting grain storage facilities and transport networks and loot Ukrainian harvests in occupied territories. Providing escorts for Ukrainian merchant vessels and opening a humanitarian shipping corridor is one potential solution, albeit a risky one. More likely, grain shipments will continue to be transported slowly and inefficiently by rail, barge, and truck to countries such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria. Ukraine uses a wider rail gauge than its EU neighbors, and while rail capacity is up, the current speed and volume of rail transports is insufficient to remove the existing export backlog.
Transportation costs as well as the availability of trucks, barges, and suitable rail cars is another problem. The European Union has rolled out a plan for “solidarity lanes”—alternative logistics routes for Ukrainian agricultural exports through the EU to third countries—but this ad hoc emergency response is emblematic of the West’s failure to plan for long-term contingencies. In the two months since these lanes have been established, they have failed to clear shipping bottlenecks and left agricultural produce stranded short of its destination. On July 22, Russia agreed to allow grain exports to proceed. But just one day later, Russian missiles struck Ukraine’s largest seaport and cast the deal into doubt. Depending on when one starts counting—the 2014 seizure of Crimea or the February invasion—the United States and the EU have had either five months or eight years to plan for major export disruptions of this sort, so it is disappointing that they have had to scramble to piece together a patchwork solution to a predictable problem.
Again, however, this lack of preparation is more understandable when viewed through the West’s Russocentric lens. Planning for major disruptions in agricultural exports made little sense as long as a wider war was inconceivable. And even in the event of a war, the overriding Western assumption was that Russia could conquer Ukraine or force Kyiv to capitulate in short order; business would find a way to continue with only minimal disruption. The same faulty logic explains how Europe allowed itself to become dependent on Russian oil and gas—and how it has struggled to wean itself off these resources even after the danger they pose has been revealed. The United States and the EU must learn from these failures and interrogate the assumptions that blind them to potential threats, no matter how far-fetched those threats may seem in peacetime.
A FOOTHOLD FOR DEMOCRACY
The Biden administration has made democratic renewal a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policy agendas. There is no better way to demonstrate democratic resolve than by defending U.S. values and interests in Ukraine. A Ukrainian victory would not only limit Russia’s capacity for future military aggression but also cement democracy’s foothold in Eastern Europe, offering a powerful lesson to would-be authoritarian aggressors and democratic nations alike. A Ukrainian loss, by contrast, would signal an acceleration of the wave of authoritarianism and democratic decline that has washed over the globe in the last decade.
To ensure the triumph of democracy in Ukraine, the United States must first change its thinking patterns and learn from decades of mistakes. Recognizing the poisonous Russocentrism of U.S. foreign policy is the first step toward a better approach to U.S.-Ukrainian relations. As Russia’s war effort falters and the prospect of a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia begins to look unthinkable once again, it will be tempting to revert to old ways of thinking and plan for normalized relations with a post-Putin Russia. But such an outcome would once again risk privileging Russia over Ukraine. Even if Putin is deposed or replaced through some other means, the United States should not assume Russia can change for the better; rapprochement must be earned, not given. By freeing itself from its Russocentrism, Washington will also be better able to engage with and listen to its partners in Eastern and northern Europe, which have greater proximity to and more clarity on national security threats from Russia. Their knowledge and expertise will be critical to Ukraine’s victory over Russia, future Ukrainian reconstruction, the prosecution of war crimes, prosperity in Eastern Europe, and eventually, the establishment of thriving democracies across Eurasia.
Beneath the United States’ misplaced aspirations for a positive relationship with Russia lies immense hubris. Americans tend to believe they can accomplish anything, but perpetually discount the agency of their interlocutors. In truth, the United States never had the influence to unilaterally change Russia’s internal politics. But it did have the ability to nurture a more promising outcome with a more willing partner in Ukraine. Unless the United States fundamentally reorients its foreign policy, away from aspirations and toward outcomes, it will miss an even bigger opportunity to bring about a peaceful, democratic Eastern Europe.
August 8, 2022
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. Macron staged a spectacular martial display to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the American entrance into the First World War. Vintage tanks rolled down the Champs-Élysées as fighter jets roared overhead. The event seemed to be calculated to appeal to Trump—his sense of showmanship and grandiosity—and he was visibly delighted. The French general in charge of the parade turned to one of his American counterparts and said, “You are going to be doing this next year.”
Sure enough, Trump returned to Washington determined to have his generals throw him the biggest, grandest military parade ever for the Fourth of July. The generals, to his bewilderment, reacted with disgust. “I’d rather swallow acid,” his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, said. Struggling to dissuade Trump, officials pointed out that the parade would cost millions of dollars and tear up the streets of the capital.
But the gulf between Trump and the generals was not really about money or practicalities, just as their endless policy battles were not only about clashing views on whether to withdraw from Afghanistan or how to combat the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran. The divide was also a matter of values, of how they viewed the United States itself. That was never clearer than when Trump told his new chief of staff, John Kelly—like Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general—about his vision for Independence Day. “Look, I don’t want any wounded guys in the parade,” Trump said. “This doesn’t look good for me.” He explained with distaste that at the Bastille Day parade there had been several formations of injured veterans, including wheelchair-bound soldiers who had lost limbs in battle.
Kelly could not believe what he was hearing. “Those are the heroes,” he told Trump. “In our society, there’s only one group of people who are more heroic than they are—and they are buried over in Arlington.” Kelly did not mention that his own son Robert, a lieutenant killed in action in Afghanistan, was among the dead interred there.
“I don’t want them,” Trump repeated. “It doesn’t look good for me.”
The subject came up again during an Oval Office briefing that included Trump, Kelly, and Paul Selva, an Air Force general and the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kelly joked in his deadpan way about the parade. “Well, you know, General Selva is going to be in charge of organizing the Fourth of July parade,” he told the President. Trump did not understand that Kelly was being sarcastic. “So, what do you think of the parade?” Trump asked Selva. Instead of telling Trump what he wanted to hear, Selva was forthright.
“I didn’t grow up in the United States, I actually grew up in Portugal,” Selva said. “Portugal was a dictatorship—and parades were about showing the people who had the guns. And in this country, we don’t do that.” He added, “It’s not who we are.”
Even after this impassioned speech, Trump still did not get it. “So, you don’t like the idea?” he said, incredulous.
“No,” Selva said. “It’s what dictators do.”
The four years of the Trump Presidency were characterized by a fantastical degree of instability: fits of rage, late-night Twitter storms, abrupt dismissals. At first, Trump, who had dodged the draft by claiming to have bone spurs, seemed enamored with being Commander-in-Chief and with the national-security officials he’d either appointed or inherited. But Trump’s love affair with “my generals” was brief, and in a statement for this article the former President confirmed how much he had soured on them over time. “These were very untalented people and once I realized it, I did not rely on them, I relied on the real generals and admirals within the system,” he said.
It turned out that the generals had rules, standards, and expertise, not blind loyalty. The President’s loud complaint to John Kelly one day was typical: “You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?”
“Which generals?” Kelly asked.
“The German generals in World War II,” Trump responded.
“You do know that they tried to kill Hitler three times and almost pulled it off?” Kelly said.
But, of course, Trump did not know that. “No, no, no, they were totally loyal to him,” the President replied. In his version of history, the generals of the Third Reich had been completely subservient to Hitler; this was the model he wanted for his military. Kelly told Trump that there were no such American generals, but the President was determined to test the proposition.
By late 2018, Trump wanted his own handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had tired of Joseph Dunford, a Marine general who had been appointed chairman by Barack Obama, and who worked closely with Mattis as they resisted some of Trump’s more outlandish ideas. Never mind that Dunford still had most of a year to go in his term. For months, David Urban, a lobbyist who ran the winning 2016 Trump campaign in Pennsylvania, had been urging the President and his inner circle to replace Dunford with a more like-minded chairman, someone less aligned with Mattis, who had commanded both Dunford and Kelly in the Marines.
Mattis’s candidate to succeed Dunford was David Goldfein, an Air Force general and a former F-16 fighter pilot who had been shot down in the Balkans and successfully evaded capture. No one could remember a President selecting a chairman over the objections of his Defense Secretary, but word came back to the Pentagon that there was no way Trump would accept just one recommendation. Two obvious contenders from the Army, however, declined to be considered: General Curtis Scaparrotti, the nato Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told fellow-officers that there was “no gas left in my tank” to deal with being Trump’s chairman. General Joseph Votel, the Central Command chief, also begged off, telling a colleague he was not a good fit to work so closely with Mattis.
Urban, who had attended West Point with Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and remained an Army man at heart, backed Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the Army. Milley, who was then sixty, was the son of a Navy corpsman who had served with the 4th Marine Division, in Iwo Jima. He grew up outside Boston and played hockey at Princeton. As an Army officer, Milley commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, led the 10th Mountain Division, and oversaw the Army Forces Command. A student of history who often carried a pile of the latest books on the Second World War with him, Milley was decidedly not a member of the close-knit Marine fraternity that had dominated national-security policy for Trump’s first two years. Urban told the President that he would connect better with Milley, who was loquacious and blunt to the point of being rude, and who had the Ivy League pedigree that always impressed Trump.
Milley had already demonstrated those qualities in meetings with Trump as the Army chief of staff. “Milley would go right at why it’s important for the President to know this about the Army and why the Army is the service that wins all the nation’s wars. He had all those sort of elevator-speech punch lines,” a senior defense official recalled. “He would have that big bellowing voice and be right in his face with all the one-liners, and then he would take a breath and he would say, ‘Mr. President, our Army is here to serve you. Because you’re the Commander-in-Chief.’ It was a very different approach, and Trump liked that.” And, like Trump, Milley was not a subscriber to the legend of Mad Dog Mattis, whom he considered a “complete control freak.”
Mattis, for his part, seemed to believe that Milley was inappropriately campaigning for the job, and Milley recalled to others that Mattis confronted him at a reception that fall, saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t run for office. You shouldn’t run to be the chairman.” Milley later told people that he had replied sharply to Mattis, “I’m not lobbying for any fucking thing. I don’t do that.” Milley eventually raised the issue with Dunford. “Hey, Mattis has got this in his head,” Milley told him. “I’m telling you it ain’t me.” Milley even claimed that he had begged Urban to cease promoting his candidacy.
In November, 2018, the day before Milley was scheduled for an interview with Trump, he and Mattis had another barbed encounter at the Pentagon. In Milley’s recounting of the episode later to others, Mattis urged him to tell Trump that he wanted to be the next Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, rather than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Milley said he would not do that but would instead wait to hear what the President wanted him to do. This would end whatever relationship the two generals had.
When Milley arrived at the White House the next day, he was received by Kelly, who seemed to him unusually distraught. Before they headed into the Oval Office to meet with Trump, Milley asked Kelly what he thought.
“You should go to Europe and just get the fuck out of D.C.,” Kelly said. The White House was a cesspool: “Just get as far away as you can.”
In the Oval Office, Trump said right from the start that he was considering Milley for chairman of the Joint Chiefs. When Trump offered him the job, Milley replied, “Mr. President, I’ll do whatever you ask me to do.”
For the next hour, they talked about the state of the world. Immediately, there were points of profound disagreement. On Afghanistan, Milley said he believed that a complete withdrawal of American troops, as Trump wanted, would cause a serious new set of problems. And Milley had already spoken out publicly against the banning of transgender troops, which Trump was insisting on.
“Mattis tells me you are weak on transgender,” Trump said.
“No, I am not weak on transgender,” Milley replied. “I just don’t care who sleeps with who.”
There were other differences as well, but in the end Milley assured him, “Mr. President, you’re going to be making the decisions. All I can guarantee from me is I’m going to give you an honest answer, and I’m not going to talk about it on the front page of the Washington Post. I’ll give you an honest answer on everything I can. And you’re going to make the decisions, and as long as they’re legal I’ll support it.”
As long as they’re legal. It was not clear how much that caveat even registered with Trump. The decision to name Milley was a rare chance, as Trump saw it, to get back at Mattis. Trump would confirm this years later, after falling out with both men, saying that he had picked Milley only because Mattis “could not stand him, had no respect for him, and would not recommend him.”
Late on the evening of December 7th, Trump announced that he would reveal a big personnel decision having to do with the Joint Chiefs the next day, in Philadelphia, at the hundred-and-nineteenth annual Army-Navy football game. This was all the notice Dunford had that he was about to be publicly humiliated. The next morning, Dunford was standing with Milley at the game waiting for the President to arrive when Urban, the lobbyist, showed up. Urban hugged Milley. “We did it!” Urban said. “We did it!”
But Milley’s appointment was not even the day’s biggest news. As Trump walked to his helicopter to fly to the game, he dropped another surprise. “John Kelly will be leaving toward the end of the year,” he told reporters. Kelly had lasted seventeen months in what he called “the worst fucking job in the world.”
For Trump, the decision was a turning point. Instead of installing another strong-willed White House chief of staff who might have told him no, the President gravitated toward one who would basically go along with whatever he wanted. A week later, Kelly made an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to persuade Trump not to replace him with Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina who was serving as Trump’s budget director. “You don’t want to hire someone who’s going to be a yes-man,” Kelly told the President. “I don’t give a shit anymore,” Trump replied. “I want a yes-man!”
A little more than a week after that, Mattis was out, too, having quit in protest over Trump’s order that the U.S. abruptly withdraw its forces from Syria right after Mattis had met with American allies fighting alongside the U.S. It was the first time in nearly four decades that a major Cabinet secretary had resigned over a national-security dispute with the President.
The so-called “axis of adults” was over. None of them had done nearly as much to restrain Trump as the President’s critics thought they should have. But all of them—Kelly, Mattis, Dunford, plus H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first Secretary of State—had served as guardrails in one way or another. Trump hoped to replace them with more malleable figures. As Mattis would put it, Trump was so out of his depth that he had decided to drain the pool.
On January 2, 2019, Kelly sent a farewell e-mail to the White House staff. He said that these were the people he would miss: “The selfless ones, who work for the American people so hard and never lowered themselves to wrestle in the mud with the pigs. The ones who stayed above the drama, put personal ambition and politics aside, and simply worked for our great country. The ones who were ethical, moral and always told their boss what he or she NEEDED to hear, as opposed to what they might have wanted to hear.”
That same morning, Mulvaney showed up at the White House for his first official day as acting chief of staff. He called an all-hands meeting and made an announcement: O.K., we’re going to do things differently. John Kelly’s gone, and we’re going to let the President be the President.
In the fall of 2019, nearly a year after Trump named him the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Milley finally took over the position from Dunford. Two weeks into the job, Milley sat at Trump’s side in a meeting at the White House with congressional leaders to discuss a brewing crisis in the Middle East. Trump had again ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, imperilling America’s Kurdish allies and effectively handing control of the territory over to the Syrian government and Russian military forces. The House—amid impeachment proceedings against the President for holding up nearly four hundred million dollars in security assistance to Ukraine as leverage to demand an investigation of his Democratic opponent—passed a nonbinding resolution rebuking Trump for the pullout. Even two-thirds of the House Republicans voted for it.
At the meeting, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, pointed out the vote against the President. “Congratulations,” Trump snapped sarcastically. He grew even angrier when the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, read out a warning from Mattis that leaving Syria could result in the resurgence of the Islamic State. In response, Trump derided his former Defense Secretary as “the world’s most overrated general. You know why I fired him? I fired him because he wasn’t tough enough.”
Eventually, Pelosi, in her frustration, stood and pointed at the President. “All roads with you lead to Putin,” she said. “You gave Russia Ukraine and Syria.”
“You’re just a politician, a third-rate politician!” Trump shot back.
Finally, Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader and Pelosi’s No. 2, had had enough. “This is not useful,” he said, and stood up to leave with the Speaker.
“We’ll see you at the polls,” Trump shouted as they walked out.
When she exited the White House, Pelosi told reporters that she left because Trump was having a “meltdown.” A few hours later, Trump tweeted a White House photograph of Pelosi standing over him, apparently thinking it would prove that she was the one having a meltdown. Instead, the image went viral as an example of Pelosi confronting Trump.
Milley could also be seen in the photograph, his hands clenched together, his head bowed low, looking as though he wanted to sink into the floor. To Pelosi, this was a sign of inexplicable weakness, and she would later say that she never understood why Milley had not been willing to stand up to Trump at that meeting. After all, she would point out, he was the nonpartisan leader of the military, not one of Trump’s toadies. “Milley, you would have thought, would have had more independence,” she told us, “but he just had his head down.”
In fact, Milley was already quite wary of Trump. That night, he called Representative Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who had also been present. “Is that the way these things normally go?” Milley asked. As Smith later put it, “That was the moment when Milley realized that the boss might have a screw or two loose.” There had been no honeymoon. “From pretty much his first day on the job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” Smith said, “he was very much aware of the fact that there was a challenge here that was not your normal challenge with a Commander-in-Chief.”
Early on the evening of June 1, 2020, Milley failed what he came to realize was the biggest test of his career: a short walk from the White House across Lafayette Square, minutes after it had been violently cleared of Black Lives Matter protesters. Dressed in combat fatigues, Milley marched behind Trump with a phalanx of the President’s advisers in a photo op, the most infamous of the Trump Presidency, that was meant to project a forceful response to the protests that had raged outside the White House and across the country since the killing, the week before, of George Floyd. Most of the demonstrations had been peaceful, but there were also eruptions of looting, street violence, and arson, including a small fire in St. John’s Church, across from the White House.
In the morning before the Lafayette Square photo op, Trump had clashed with Milley, Attorney General William Barr, and the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, over his demands for a militarized show of force. “We look weak,” Trump told them. The President wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and use active-duty military to quell the protests. He wanted ten thousand troops in the streets and the 82nd Airborne called up. He demanded that Milley take personal charge. When Milley and the others resisted and said that the National Guard would be sufficient, Trump shouted, “You are all losers! You are all fucking losers!” Turning to Milley, Trump said, “Can’t you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?”
Eventually, Trump was persuaded not to send in the military against American citizens. Barr, as the civilian head of law enforcement, was given the lead role in the protest response, and the National Guard was deployed to assist police. Hours later, Milley, Esper, and other officials were abruptly summoned back to the White House and sent marching across Lafayette Square. As they walked, with the scent of tear gas still in the air, Milley realized that he should not be there and made his exit, quietly peeling off to his waiting black Chevy Suburban. But the damage was done. No one would care or even remember that he was not present when Trump held up a Bible in front of the damaged church; people had already seen him striding with the President on live television in his battle dress, an image that seemed to signal that the United States under Trump was, finally, a nation at war with itself. Milley knew this was a misjudgment that would haunt him forever, a “road-to-Damascus moment,” as he would later put it. What would he do about it?
In the days after the Lafayette Square incident, Milley sat in his office at the Pentagon, writing and rewriting drafts of a letter of resignation. There were short versions of the letter; there were long versions. His preferred version was the one that read in its entirety:
I regret to inform you that I intend to resign as your Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thank you for the honor of appointing me as senior ranking officer. The events of the last couple weeks have caused me to do deep soul-searching, and I can no longer faithfully support and execute your orders as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country. I believe that you have made a concerted effort over time to politicize the United States military. I thought that I could change that. I’ve come to the realization that I cannot, and I need to step aside and let someone else try to do that.
Second, you are using the military to create fear in the minds of the people—and we are trying to protect the American people. I cannot stand idly by and participate in that attack, verbally or otherwise, on the American people. The American people trust their military and they trust us to protect them against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and our military will do just that. We will not turn our back on the American people.
Third, I swore an oath to the Constitution of the United States and embodied within that Constitution is the idea that says that all men and women are created equal. All men and women are created equal, no matter who you are, whether you are white or Black, Asian, Indian, no matter the color of your skin, no matter if you’re gay, straight or something in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or choose not to believe. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter what country you came from, what your last name is—what matters is we’re Americans. We’re all Americans. That under these colors of red, white, and blue—the colors that my parents fought for in World War II—means something around the world. It’s obvious to me that you don’t think of those colors the same way I do. It’s obvious to me that you don’t hold those values dear and the cause that I serve.
And lastly it is my deeply held belief that you’re ruining the international order, and causing significant damage to our country overseas, that was fought for so hard by the Greatest Generation that they instituted in 1945. Between 1914 and 1945, 150 million people were slaughtered in the conduct of war. They were slaughtered because of tyrannies and dictatorships. That generation, like every generation, has fought against that, has fought against fascism, has fought against Nazism, has fought against extremism. It’s now obvious to me that you don’t understand that world order. You don’t understand what the war was all about. In fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fought against. And I cannot be a party to that. It is with deep regret that I hereby submit my letter of resignation.
The letter was dated June 8th, a full week after Lafayette Square, but Milley still was not sure if he should give it to Trump. He was sending up flares, seeking advice from a wide circle. He reached out to Dunford, and to mentors such as the retired Army general James Dubik, an expert on military ethics. He called political contacts as well, including members of Congress and former officials from the Bush and Obama Administrations. Most told him what Robert Gates, a former Secretary of Defense and C.I.A. chief, did: “Make them fire you. Don’t resign.”
“My sense is Mark had a pretty accurate measure of the man pretty quickly,” Gates recalled later. “He would tell me over time, well before June 1st, some of the absolutely crazy notions that were put forward in the Oval Office, crazy ideas from the President, things about using or not using military force, the immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, pulling out of South Korea. It just went on and on.”
Milley was not the only senior official to seek Gates’s counsel. Several members of Trump’s national-security team had made the pilgrimage out to his home in Washington State during the previous two years. Gates would pour them a drink, grill them some salmon, and help them wrestle with the latest Trump conundrum. “The problem with resignation is you can only fire that gun once,” he told them. All the conversations were variations on a theme: “ ‘How do I walk us back from the ledge?’ ‘How do I keep this from happening, because it would be a terrible thing for the country?’ ”
After Lafayette Square, Gates told both Milley and Esper that, given Trump’s increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior, they needed to stay in the Pentagon as long as they could. “If you resign, it’s a one-day story,” Gates told them. “If you’re fired, it makes it clear you were standing up for the right thing.” Gates advised Milley that he had another important card and urged him to play it: “Keep the chiefs on board with you and make it clear to the White House that if you go they all go, so that the White House knows this isn’t just about firing Mark Milley. This is about the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff quitting in response.”
Publicly, Lafayette Square looked like a debacle for Milley. Several retired generals had condemned his participation, pointing out that the leader of a racially diverse military, with more than two hundred thousand active-duty Black troops, could not be seen opposing a movement for racial justice. Even Mattis, who had refrained from openly criticizing Trump, issued a statement about the “bizarre photo op.” The Washington Post reported that Mattis had been motivated to do so by his anger at the image of Milley parading through the square in his fatigues.
Whatever their personal differences, Mattis and Milley both knew that there was a tragic inevitability to the moment. Throughout his Presidency, Trump had sought to redefine the role of the military in American public life. In his 2016 campaign, he had spoken out in support of the use of torture and other practices that the military considered war crimes. Just before the 2018 midterms, he ordered thousands of troops to the southern border to combat a fake “invasion” by a caravan of migrants. In 2019, in a move that undermined military justice and the chain of command, he gave clemency to a Navy seal found guilty of posing with the dead body of a captive in Iraq.
Many considered Trump’s 2018 decision to use the military in his preëlection border stunt to be “the predicate—or the harbinger—of 2020,” in the words of Peter Feaver, a Duke University expert on civil-military relations, who taught the subject to generals at command school. When Milley, who had been among Feaver’s students, called for advice after Lafayette Square, Feaver agreed that Milley should apologize but encouraged him not to resign. “It would have been a mistake,” Feaver said. “We have no tradition of resignation in protest amongst the military.”
Milley decided to apologize in a commencement address at the National Defense University that he was scheduled to deliver the week after the photo op. Feaver’s counsel was to own up to the error and make it clear that the mistake was his and not Trump’s. Presidents, after all, “are allowed to do political stunts,” Feaver said. “That’s part of being President.”
Milley’s apology was unequivocal. “I should not have been there,” he said in the address. He did not mention Trump. “My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” It was, he added, “a mistake that I have learned from.”
At the same time, Milley had finally come to a decision. He would not quit. “Fuck that shit,” he told his staff. “I’ll just fight him.” The challenge, as he saw it, was to stop Trump from doing any more damage, while also acting in a way that was consistent with his obligation to carry out the orders of his Commander-in-Chief. Yet the Constitution offered no practical guide for a general faced with a rogue President. Never before since the position had been created, in 1949—or at least since Richard Nixon’s final days, in 1974—had a chairman of the Joint Chiefs encountered such a situation. “If they want to court-martial me, or put me in prison, have at it,” Milley told his staff. “But I will fight from the inside.”
Milley’s apology tour was private as well as public. With the upcoming election fuelling Trump’s sense of frenetic urgency, the chairman sought to get the message to Democrats that he would not go along with any further efforts by the President to deploy the machinery of war for domestic political ends. He called both Pelosi and Schumer. “After the Lafayette Square episode, Milley was extremely contrite and communicated to any number of people that he had no intention of playing Trump’s game any longer,” Bob Bauer, the former Obama White House counsel, who was then advising Joe Biden’s campaign and heard about the calls, said. “He was really burned by that experience. He was appalled. He apologized for it, and it was pretty clear he was digging his heels in.”
On Capitol Hill, however, some Democrats, including Pelosi, remained skeptical. To them, Lafayette Square proved that Milley had been a Trumpist all along. “There was a huge misunderstanding about Milley,” Adam Smith, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, recalled. “A lot of my Democratic colleagues after June 1st in particular were concerned about him.” Smith tried to assure other Democrats that “there was never a single solitary moment where it was possible that Milley was going to help Trump do anything that shouldn’t be done.”
And yet Pelosi, among others, also distrusted Milley because of an incident earlier that year in which Trump ordered the killing of the Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani without briefing congressional leaders in advance. Smith said Pelosi believed that the chairman had been “evasive” and disrespectful to Congress. Milley, for his part, felt he could not disregard Trump’s insistence that lawmakers not be notified—a breach that was due to the President’s pique over the impeachment proceedings against him. “The navigation of Trumpworld was more difficult for Milley than Nancy gives him credit for,” Smith said. He vouched for the chairman but never managed to convince Pelosi.
How long could this standoff between the Pentagon and the President go on? For the next few months, Milley woke up each morning not knowing whether he would be fired before the day was over. His wife told him she was shocked that he had not been cashiered outright when he made his apology.
Esper was also on notice. Two days after Lafayette Square, the Defense Secretary had gone to the Pentagon pressroom and offered his own apology, even revealing his opposition to Trump’s demands to invoke the Insurrection Act and use the active-duty military. Such a step, Esper said, should be reserved only for “the most urgent and dire of situations.” Trump later exploded at Esper in the Oval Office about the criticism, delivering what Milley would recall as “the worst reaming out” he had ever heard.
The next day, Trump’s latest chief of staff, Mark Meadows, called the Defense Secretary at home—three times—to get him to recant his opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act. When he refused, Meadows took “the Tony Soprano approach,” as Esper later put it, and began threatening him, before eventually backing off. (A spokesperson for Meadows disputed Esper’s account.) Esper resolved to stay in office as long as he could, “to endure all the shit and run the clock out,” as he put it. He felt that he had a particular responsibility to hold on. By law, the only person authorized to deploy troops other than the President is the Secretary of Defense. Esper was determined not to hand that power off to satraps such as Robert O’Brien, who had become Trump’s fourth and final national-security adviser, or Ric Grenell, a former public-relations man who had been serving as acting director of National Intelligence.
Both Esper and Milley found new purpose in waiting out the President. They resisted him throughout the summer, as Trump repeatedly demanded that active-duty troops quash ongoing protests, threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act, and tried to stop the military from renaming bases honoring Confederate generals. “They both expected, literally on a daily basis, to be fired,” Gates recalled. Milley “would call me and essentially say, ‘I may not last until tomorrow night.’ And he was comfortable with that. He felt like he knew he was going to support the Constitution, and there were no two ways about it.”
Milley put away the resignation letter in his desk and drew up a plan, a guide for how to get through the next few months. He settled on four goals: First, make sure Trump did not start an unnecessary war overseas. Second, make sure the military was not used in the streets against the American people for the purpose of keeping Trump in power. Third, maintain the military’s integrity. And, fourth, maintain his own integrity. In the months to come, Milley would refer back to the plan more times than he could count.
Even in June, Milley understood that it was not just a matter of holding off Trump until after the Presidential election, on November 3rd. He knew that Election Day might well mark merely the beginning, not the end, of the challenges Trump would pose. The portents were worrisome. Barely one week before Lafayette Square, Trump had posted a tweet that would soon become a refrain. The 2020 Presidential race, he warned for the first time, would end up as “the greatest Rigged Election in history.”
By the evening of Monday, November 9th, Milley’s fears about a volatile post-election period unlike anything America had seen before seemed to be coming true. News organizations had called the election for Biden, but Trump refused to acknowledge that he had lost by millions of votes. The peaceful transition of power—a cornerstone of liberal democracy—was now in doubt. Sitting at home that night at around nine, the chairman received an urgent phone call from the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. With the possible exception of Vice-President Mike Pence, no one had been more slavishly loyal in public, or more privately obsequious, to Trump than Pompeo. But even he could not take it anymore.
“We’ve got to talk,” Pompeo told Milley, who was at home in Quarters Six, the red brick house that has been the official residence of chairmen of the Joint Chiefs since the early nineteen-sixties. “Can I come over?”
Milley invited Pompeo to visit immediately.
“The crazies have taken over,” Pompeo told him when they sat down at Milley’s kitchen table. Not only was Trump surrounded by the crazies; they were, in fact, ascendant in the White House and, as of that afternoon, inside the Pentagon itself. Just a few hours earlier, on the first workday after the election was called for Biden, Trump had finally fired Esper. Milley and Pompeo were alarmed that the Defense Secretary was being replaced by Christopher Miller, until recently an obscure mid-level counterterrorism official at Trump’s National Security Council, who had arrived at the Pentagon flanked by a team of what appeared to be Trump’s political minders.
For Milley, this was an ominous development. From the beginning, he understood that “if the idea was to seize power,” as he told his staff, “you are not going to do this without the military.” Milley had studied the history of coups. They invariably required the takeover of what he referred to as the “power ministries”—the military, the national police, and the interior forces.
As soon as he’d heard about Esper’s ouster, Milley had rushed upstairs to the Secretary’s office. “This is complete bullshit,” he told Esper. Milley said that he would resign in protest. “You can’t,” Esper insisted. “You’re the only one left.” Once he cooled off, Milley agreed.
In the coming weeks, Milley would repeatedly convene the Joint Chiefs, to bolster their resolve to resist any dangerous political schemes from the White House now that Esper was out. He quoted Benjamin Franklin to them on the virtues of hanging together rather than hanging separately. He told his staff that, if need be, he and all the chiefs were prepared to “put on their uniforms and go across the river together”—to threaten to quit en masse—to prevent Trump from trying to use the military to stay in power illegally.
Soon after Miller arrived at the Pentagon, Milley met with him. “First things first here,” he told the new acting Defense Secretary, who had spent the previous few months running the National Counterterrorism Center. “You are one of two people in the United States now with the capability to launch nuclear weapons.”
A Pentagon official who had worked closely with Miller had heard a rumor about him potentially replacing Esper more than a week before the election. “My first instinct was this is the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard,” the official recalled. But then he remembered how Miller had changed in the Trump White House. “He’s inclined to be a bit of a sail, and as the wind blows he will flap in that direction,” the official said. “He’s not an ideologue. He’s just a guy willing to do their bidding.” By coincidence, the official happened to be walking into the Pentagon just as Miller was entering—a video of Miller tripping on the stairs soon made the rounds. Accompanying him were three men who would, for a few weeks, at least, have immense influence over the most powerful military in the world: Kash Patel, Miller’s new chief of staff; Ezra Cohen, who would ascend to acting Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security; and Anthony Tata, a retired general and a talking head on Fox News, who would become the Pentagon’s acting head of policy.
It was an extraordinary trio. Tata’s claims to fame were calling Obama a “terrorist leader”—an assertion he later retracted—and alleging that a former C.I.A. director had threatened to assassinate Trump. Patel, a former aide to Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, had been accused of spreading conspiracy theories claiming that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 election. Both Trump’s third national-security adviser, John Bolton, and Bolton’s deputy, Charles Kupperman, had vociferously objected to putting Patel on the National Security Council staff, backing down only when told that it was a personal, “must-hire” order from the President. Still, Patel found his way around them to deal with Trump directly, feeding him packets of information on Ukraine, which was outside his portfolio, according to testimony during Trump’s first impeachment. (In a statement for this article, Patel called the allegations a “total fabrication.”) Eventually, Patel was sent to help Ric Grenell carry out a White House-ordered purge of the intelligence community.
Cohen, who had worked earlier in his career at the Defense Intelligence Agency under Michael Flynn, had initially been hired at the Trump National Security Council in 2017 but was pushed out after Flynn’s swift implosion as Trump’s first national-security adviser. When efforts were later made to rehire Cohen in the White House, Bolton’s deputy vowed to “put my badge on the table” and quit. “I am not going to hire somebody that is going to be another cancer in the organization, and Ezra is cancer,” Kupperman bluntly told Trump. In the spring of 2020, Cohen landed at the Pentagon, and following Trump’s post-election shakeup he assumed the top intelligence post at the Pentagon.
Milley had firsthand reason to be wary of these new Pentagon advisers. Just before the election, he and Pompeo were infuriated when a top-secret Navy seal Team 6 rescue mission to free an American hostage held in Nigeria nearly had to be cancelled at the last minute. The Nigerians had not formally approved the mission in advance, as required, despite Patel’s assurances. “Planes were already in the air and we didn’t have the approvals,” a senior State Department official recalled. The rescue team was kept circling while diplomats tried to track down their Nigerian counterparts. They managed to find them only minutes before the planes would have had to turn back. As a result, the official said, both Pompeo and Milley, who believed he had been personally lied to, “assigned ill will to that whole cabal.” The C.I.A. refused to have anything to do with Patel, Pompeo recalled to his State Department staff, and they should be cautious as well. “The Secretary thought these people were just wackadoodles, nuts, and dangerous,” a second senior State Department official said. (Patel denied their accounts, asserting, “I caused no delay at all.”)
After Esper’s firing, Milley summoned Patel and Cohen separately to his office to deliver stern lectures. Whatever machinations they were up to, he told each of them, “life looks really shitty from behind bars. And, whether you want to realize it or not, there’s going to be a President at exactly 1200 hours on the twentieth and his name is Joe Biden. And, if you guys do anything that’s illegal, I don’t mind having you in prison.” Cohen denied that Milley said this to him, insisting it was a “very friendly, positive conversation.” Patel also denied it, asserting, “He worked for me, not the other way around.” But Milley told his staff that he warned both Cohen and Patel that they were being watched: “Don’t do it, don’t even try to do it. I can smell it. I can see it. And so can a lot of other people. And, by the way, the military will have no part of this shit.”
Part of the new team’s agenda soon became clear: making sure Trump fulfilled his 2016 campaign promise to withdraw American troops from the “endless wars” overseas. Two days after Esper was fired, Patel slid a piece of paper across the desk to Milley during a meeting with him and Miller. It was an order, with Trump’s trademark signature in black Sharpie, decreeing that all four thousand five hundred remaining troops in Afghanistan be withdrawn by January 15th, and that a contingent of fewer than a thousand troops on a counterterrorism mission in Somalia be pulled out by December 31st.
Milley was stunned. “Where’d you get this?” he said.
Patel said that it had just come from the White House.
“Did you advise the President to do this?” he asked Patel, who said no.
“Did you advise the President to do this?” he asked Miller, who said no.
“Well, then, who advised the President to do it?” Milley asked. “By law, I’m the President’s adviser on military action. How does this happen without me rendering my military opinion and advice?”
With that, he announced that he was putting on his dress uniform and going to the White House, where Milley and the others ended up in the office of the national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
“Where did this come from?” Milley demanded, putting the withdrawal order on O’Brien’s desk.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen that before,” O’Brien said. “It doesn’t look like a White House memo.”
Keith Kellogg, a retired general serving as Pence’s national-security adviser, asked to see the document. “This is not the President,” he said. “The format’s not right. This is not done right.”
“Keith, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Milley said. “You’re telling me that someone’s forging the President of the United States’ signature?”
The order, it turned out, was not fake. It was the work of a rogue operation inside Trump’s White House overseen by Johnny McEntee, Trump’s thirty-year-old personnel chief, and supported by the President himself. The order had been drafted by Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and a Trump favorite from his television appearances, working with a junior McEntee aide. The order was then brought to the President, bypassing the national-security apparatus and Trump’s own senior officials, to get him to sign it.
Macgregor often appeared on Fox News demanding an exit from Afghanistan and accused Trump’s advisers of blocking the President from doing what he wanted. “He needs to send everyone out of the Oval Office who keeps telling him, ‘If you do that and something bad happens, it’s going to be blamed on you, Mr. President,’ ” Macgregor had told Tucker Carlson in January. “He needs to say, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ ”
On the day that Esper was fired, McEntee had invited Macgregor to his office, offered him a job as the new acting Defense Secretary’s senior adviser, and handed him a handwritten list of four priorities that, as Axios reported, McEntee claimed had come directly from Trump:
1. Get us out of Afghanistan.
2. Get us out of Iraq and Syria.
3. Complete the withdrawal from Germany.
4. Get us out of Africa.
Once the Afghanistan order was discovered, Trump’s advisers persuaded the President to back off, reminding him that he had already approved a plan for leaving over the following few months. “Why do we need a new plan?” Pompeo asked. Trump relented, and O’Brien then told the rest of the rattled national-security leadership that the order was “null and void.”
The compromise, however, was a new order that codified the drawdown to twenty-five hundred troops in Afghanistan by mid-January, which Milley and Esper had been resisting, and a reduction in the remaining three thousand troops in Iraq as well. The State Department was given one hour to notify leaders of those countries before the order was released.
Two nightmare scenarios kept running through Milley’s mind. One was that Trump might spark an external crisis, such as a war with Iran, to divert attention or to create a pretext for a power grab at home. The other was that Trump would manufacture a domestic crisis to justify ordering the military into the streets to prevent the transfer of power. Milley feared that Trump’s “Hitler-like” embrace of his own lies about the election would lead him to seek a “Reichstag moment.” In 1933, Hitler had seized on a fire in the German parliament to take control of the country. Milley now envisioned a declaration of martial law or a Presidential invocation of the Insurrection Act, with Trumpian Brown Shirts fomenting violence.
By late November, amid Trump’s escalating attacks on the election, Milley and Pompeo’s coöperation had deepened—a fact that the Secretary of State revealed to Attorney General Bill Barr over dinner on the night of December 1st. Barr had just publicly broken with Trump, telling the Associated Press in an interview that there was no evidence of election fraud sufficient to overturn the results. As they ate at an Italian restaurant in a Virginia strip mall, Barr recounted for Pompeo what he called “an eventful day.” And Pompeo told Barr about the extraordinary arrangement he had proposed to Milley to make sure that the country was in steady hands until the Inauguration: they would hold daily morning phone calls with Mark Meadows. Pompeo and Milley soon took to calling them the “land the plane” phone calls.
“Our job is to land this plane safely and to do a peaceful transfer of power the twentieth of January,” Milley told his staff. “This is our obligation to this nation.” There was a problem, however. “Both engines are out, the landing gear are stuck. We’re in an emergency situation.”
In public, Pompeo remained his staunchly pro-Trump self. The day after his secret visit to Milley’s house to commiserate about “the crazies” taking over, in fact, he refused to acknowledge Trump’s defeat, snidely telling reporters, “There will be a smooth transition—to a second Trump Administration.” Behind the scenes, however, Pompeo accepted that the election was over and made it clear that he would not help overturn the result. “He was totally against it,” a senior State Department official recalled. Pompeo cynically justified this jarring contrast between what he said in public and in private. “It was important for him to not get fired at the end, too, to be there to the bitter end,” the senior official said.
Both Milley and Pompeo were angered by the bumbling team of ideologues that Trump had sent to the Pentagon after the firing of Esper, a West Point classmate of Pompeo’s. The two, who were “already converging as fellow-travellers,” as one of the State officials put it, worked even more closely together as their alarm about Trump’s post-election conduct grew, although Milley was under no illusions about the Secretary of State. He believed that Pompeo, a longtime enabler of Trump who aspired to run for President himself, wanted “a second political life,” but that Trump’s final descent into denialism was the line that, at last, he would not cross. “At the end, he wouldn’t be a party to that craziness,” Milley told his staff. By early December, as they were holding their 8 a.m. land-the-plane calls, Milley was confident that Pompeo was genuinely trying to achieve a peaceful handover of power to Biden. But he was never sure what to make of Meadows. Was the chief of staff trying to land the plane or to hijack it?
Most days, Milley would also call the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, who was hardly a usual interlocutor for a chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In the final weeks of the Administration, Cipollone, a true believer in Trump’s conservative agenda, was a principal actor in the near-daily drama over Trump’s various schemes to overturn his election defeat. After getting off one call with Cipollone, Milley told a visitor that the White House counsel was “constructive,” “not crazy,” and a force for “trying to keep guardrails around the President.”
Milley continued to reach out to Democrats close to Biden to assure them that he would not allow the military to be misused to keep Trump in power. One regular contact was Susan Rice, the former Obama national-security adviser, dubbed by Democrats the Rice Channel. He also spoke several times with Senator Angus King, an Independent from Maine. “My conversations with him were about the danger of some attempt to use the military to declare martial law,” King said. He took it upon himself to reassure fellow-senators. “I can’t tell you why I know this,” but the military will absolutely do the right thing, he would tell them, citing Milley’s “character and honesty.”
Milley had increasing reason to fear that such a choice might actually be forced upon him. In late November, Trump pardoned Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russia. Soon afterward, Flynn publicly suggested several extreme options for Trump: he could invoke martial law, appoint a special counsel, and authorize the military to “rerun” an election in the swing states. On December 18th, Trump hosted Flynn and a group of other election deniers in the Oval Office, where, for the first time in American history, a President would seriously entertain using the military to overturn an election. They brought with them a draft of a proposed Presidential order requiring the acting Defense Secretary—Christopher Miller—to “seize, collect, retain and analyze” voting machines and provide a final assessment of any findings in sixty days, well after the Inauguration was to take place. Later that night, Trump sent out a tweet beckoning his followers to descend on the capital to help him hold on to office. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he wrote at 1:42 a.m. “Be there, will be wild!”
Milley’s fears of a coup no longer seemed far-fetched.
While Trump was being lobbied by “the crazies” to order troops to intervene at home, Milley and his fellow-generals were concerned that he would authorize a strike against Iran. For much of his Presidency, Trump’s foreign-policy hawks had agitated for a showdown with Iran; they accelerated their efforts when they realized that Trump might lose the election. In early 2020, when Mike Pence advocated taking tough measures, Milley asked why. “Because they are evil,” Pence said. Milley recalled replying, “Mr. Vice-President, there’s a lot of evil in the world, but we don’t go to war against all of it.” Milley grew even more nervous before the election, when he heard a senior official tell Trump that if he lost he should strike Iran’s nuclear program. At the time, Milley told his staff that it was a “What the fuck are these guys talking about?” moment. Now it seemed frighteningly possible.
Robert O’Brien, the national-security adviser, had been another frequent cheerleader for tough measures: “Mr. President, we should hit ’em hard, hit ’em hard with everything we have.” Esper, in his memoir, called “hit them hard” O’Brien’s “tedious signature phrase.” (O’Brien disputed this, saying, “The quote attributed to me is not accurate.”)
In the week of Esper’s firing, Milley was called to the White House to present various military options for attacking Iran and encountered a disturbing performance by Miller, the new acting Defense Secretary. Miller later told Jonathan Karl, of ABC, that he had intentionally acted like a “fucking madman” at the meeting, just three days into his tenure, pushing various escalatory scenarios for responding to Iran’s breakout nuclear capacities.
Miller’s behavior did not look intentional so much as unhelpful to Milley, as Trump kept asking for alternatives, including an attack inside Iran on its ballistic-weapons sites. Milley explained that this would be an illegal preëmptive act: “If you attack the mainland of Iran, you will be starting a war.” During another clash with Trump’s more militant advisers, when Trump was not present, Milley was even more explicit. “If we do what you’re saying,” he said, “we are all going to be tried as war criminals in The Hague.”
Trump often seemed more bluster than bite, and the Pentagon brass still believed that he did not want an all-out war, yet he continued pushing for a missile strike on Iran even after that November meeting. If Trump said it once, Milley told his staff, he said it a thousand times. “The thing he was most worried about was Iran,” a senior Biden adviser who spoke with Milley recalled. “Milley had had the experience more than once of having to walk the President off the ledge when it came to retaliating.”
The biggest fear was that Iran would provoke Trump, and, using an array of diplomatic and military channels, American officials warned the Iranians not to exploit the volatile domestic situation in the U.S. “There was a distinct concern that Iran would take advantage of this to strike at us in some way,” Adam Smith, the House Armed Services chairman, recalled.
Among those pushing the President to hit Iran before Biden’s Inauguration, Milley believed, was the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. On December 18th, the same day that Trump met with Flynn to discuss instituting martial law, Milley met with Netanyahu at his home in Jerusalem to personally urge him to back off with Trump. “If you do this, you’re gonna have a fucking war,” Milley told him.
Two days later, on December 20th, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq fired nearly two dozen rockets at the American Embassy in Baghdad. Trump responded by publicly blaming Iran and threatening major retaliation if so much as a single American was killed. It was the largest attack on the Green Zone in more than a decade, and exactly the sort of provocation Milley had been dreading.
During the holidays, tensions with Iran escalated even more as the first anniversary of the American killing of Suleimani approached. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “those who ordered the murder of General Soleimani” would “be punished.” Late on the afternoon of Sunday, January 3rd, Trump met with Milley, Miller, and his other national-security advisers on Iran. Pompeo and Milley discussed a worrisome new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. But, by the end, even Pompeo and O’Brien, the Iran hawks, opposed a military strike at this late hour in Trump’s Presidency. “He realized the clock ran out,” Milley told his staff. Trump, consumed with his election fight, backed off.
At the end of the meeting with his security chiefs, the President pulled Miller aside and asked him if he was ready for the upcoming January 6th protest. “It’s going to be a big deal,” Milley heard Trump tell Miller. “You’ve got enough people to make sure it’s safe for my people, right?” Miller assured him he did. This was the last time that Milley would ever see Trump.
On January 6th, Milley was in his office at the Pentagon meeting with Christine Wormuth, the lead Biden transition official for the Defense Department. In the weeks since the election, Milley had started displaying four networks at once on a large monitor across from the round table where he and Wormuth sat: CNN and Fox News, as well as the small pro-Trump outlets Newsmax and One America News Network, which had been airing election disinformation that even Fox would not broadcast. “You’ve got to know what the enemy is up to,” Milley had joked when Wormuth noticed his viewing habits at one of their meetings.
Milley and Wormuth that day were supposed to discuss the Pentagon’s plans to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as the Biden team’s hopes to mobilize large-scale covid vaccination sites around the country. But, as they realized in horror what was transpiring on the screen in front of them, Milley was summoned to an urgent meeting with Miller and Ryan McCarthy, the Secretary of the Army. They had not landed the plane, after all. The plane was crashing.
Milley entered the Defense Secretary’s office at 2:30 p.m., and they discussed deploying the D.C. National Guard and mobilizing National Guard units from nearby states and federal agents under the umbrella of the Justice Department. Miller issued an order at 3:04 p.m. to send in the D.C. Guard.
But it was too late to prevent the humiliation: Congress had been overwhelmed by a mob of election deniers, white-supremacist militia members, conspiracy theorists, and Trump loyalists. Milley worried that this truly was Trump’s “Reichstag moment,” the crisis that would allow the President to invoke martial law and maintain his grip on power.
From the secure facility at Fort McNair, where they had been brought by their protective details, congressional leaders called on the Pentagon to send forces to the Capitol immediately. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were suspicious of Miller: Whose side was this unknown Trump appointee on? Milley tried to reassure the Democratic leadership that the uniformed military was on the case, and not there to do Trump’s bidding. The Guard, he told them, was coming.
It was already after three-thirty by then, however, and the congressional leaders were furious that it was taking so long. They also spoke with Mike Pence, who offered to call the Pentagon as well. He reached Miller around 4 p.m., with Milley still in his office listening in. “Clear the Capitol,” Pence ordered.
Although it was the Vice-President who was seeking to defend the Capitol, Meadows wanted to pretend that Trump was the one taking action. He called Milley, telling him, “We have to kill the narrative that the Vice-President is making all the decisions. We need to establish the narrative that the President is still in charge.” Milley later dismissed Meadows, whose spokesperson denied Milley’s account, as playing “politics, politics, politics.”
The Guard finally arrived at the Capitol by 5:40 p.m., “sprint speed” for the military, as Milley would put it, but not nearly fast enough for some members of Congress, who would spend months investigating why it took so long. By 7 p.m., a perimeter had been set up outside the Capitol, and F.B.I. and A.T.F. agents were going door to door in the Capitol’s many hideaways and narrow corridors, searching for any remaining rioters.
That night, waiting for Congress to return and formally ratify Trump’s electoral defeat, Milley called one of his contacts on the Biden team. He explained that he had spoken with Meadows and Pat Cipollone at the White House, and that he had been on the phone with Pence and the congressional leaders as well. But Milley never heard from the Commander-in-Chief, on a day when the Capitol was overrun by a hostile force for the first time since the War of 1812. Trump, he said, was both “shameful” and “complicit.”
Later, Milley would often think back to that awful day. “It was a very close-run thing,” the historically minded chairman would say, invoking the famous line of the Duke of Wellington after he had only narrowly defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Trump and his men had failed in their execution of the plot, failed in part by failing to understand that Milley and the others had never been Trump’s generals and never would be. But their attack on the election had exposed a system with glaring weaknesses. “They shook the very Republic to the core,” Milley would eventually reflect. “Can you imagine what a group of people who are much more capable could have done?” ♦
This is drawn from “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021.”
An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a quote to Mark Esper’s book.Published in the print edition of the August 15, 2022, issue, with the headline “Trump’s Last General.”