In a six-plus-minute interview during an impromptu stroll on Thursday to celebrate Army National Guard Day, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley explained how he ended up in such esteemed company. Milley, a blunt-talking general known for his impressive command skills and wit, was the Army’s final choice for the top job in March after a yearlong hunt.
“This is a leader that is very forceful, honest, direct and doesn’t take the crap from people,” said Milley, noting that he had in one part of the interview answered “not interested” to the question “would you like to serve as President Trump’s chief of staff?”
“But that wasn’t the way it played out,” Milley said.
“We actually found a guy who wouldn’t take the crap from anybody,” the chief of staff said, adding that he was impressed with the way he explained his differences of opinion with then–Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, whom Milley said was “much warmer, much more positive.”
Milley’s selection comes at a time when Trump is faced with a slew of tough decisions, including what to do about the precarious status of Turkey’s Balyasi air base. It also follows rising tensions with the European Union, North Korea and Russia, which are coming into sharper focus at a time when Trump is ramping up efforts to support the domestic manufacturing industry through the new US-Mexico-Canada-U.S. trade deal.
On top of that, Trump is very engaged in the debate over who should replace NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. His views have been unpredictable, leaving NATO members unsure where Trump stands on a range of issues.
Milley said he did not want to comment on Trump’s staff decisions, but he was clear about his own views on the NATO Alliance that has stood for 60 years.
“He [Trump] has three positions on NATO: he’s negative on NATO, he’s positive on NATO, he’s neutral about NATO,” Milley said. “This is a guy who likes people who are genuine about what they believe, and he wants people who have absolutely no hidden agenda.”
Milley was not Trump’s first choice for the top job. He said he reached out to several people, including former Secretary of State James Mattis, but he worried Mattis would not accept the offer.
“I couldn’t believe he’d leave the country,” Milley said. “It would be a bitter pill to swallow.”
And then the only offer that made sense to Milley was made by Trump.
On Thursday, the general joined Mattis, Defense Secretary James Mattis, the commander of North Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and others at an event where the Guard was honored. Afterward, Mattis, Milley and Trump walked a little north to a guard station nearby to eat a hot dog and talk about what they had just eaten.
Back at the executive officer’s house where Trump had entertained his chief of staff, the officers’ families and military officers and families were clinking glasses and exchanging sandwiches and donuts for dollar bills.
“It was a little teary moment and it was good tears,” Milley said.