President Joe Biden’s top military adviser declined to comment Wednesday on the president’s mental capacity, and that might have been one of the nicer things he said in testimony before a House committee.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during the House Armed Services Committee hearing that the terrorist threat could become stronger after the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, Milley fielded questions on Capitol Hill for the second day in a row. The three top military leaders appeared Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There was significant overlap in the two hearings, but the House hearing produced some fresh news as well as dramatic exchanges with lawmakers. Here are six big takeaways.
1. Mental States of Biden, Trump
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., pushed Milley on the contents of “Peril,” a new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, by reading aloud from its reported conversation between Milley and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shortly after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
DesJarlais quoted Pelosi from the book as saying: “What I’m saying to you is that they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol. Who even knows what else he may do? And, is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”
DesJarlais asked Milley: “Do you recall that?”
“I would just say there were a lot of disparaging comments made, and my focus was to assure her that the nuclear weapons systems were under control,” said Milley, whose stint as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff bridges the Trump and Biden administrations.
The book also quotes Pelosi as telling Milley about former President Donald Trump: “You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time.”
Woodward and Costa quote Milley as saying: “Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything.”
“If you’re the principal adviser to the president and she said that to you, do you think that you were doing service to a president by agreeing with the speaker that your commander in chief is crazy?” DesJarlais asked Milley.
Milley responded: “I actually said I’m not qualified to assess the mental health of the president. What I’m agreeing to is that we have to have a secure nuclear system.”
Milley earlier repeated to the House panel what he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday: that Trump did not plan to attack China, but that intercepted Chinese communications indicated the communist regime feared that would happen.
DesJarlais then pivoted to Biden.
“Have you had any conversation with the [House] speaker or any of our foreign leaders about our current president’s mental capacity?” DesJarlais asked.
“We have a physician right here on the panel who was the personal physician to the prior three presidents who said President Biden should take a mental competency test,” DesJarlais added, referring to Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, who took office in January and was White House physician for Trump.
“We see it in the press. His lack of ability to answer questions,” the Tennessee Republican said of Biden. “Have you had any conversations with anybody concerning his ability to carry out a nuclear order or any other serious engagements?”
Milley said he has not commented on the mental state of either Trump or Biden.
“No. My answer would be the same,” Milley said. “I’m not qualified to evaluate a president’s mental health or your mental health or anybody’s mental health. I’m not a doctor.”
“But you were concerned about Trump; you said you were concerned about him when you made the call to China,” DesJarlais said.
Milley disputed that accusation.
“No, I didn’t. What I said on the call to China was, ‘I guarantee you that President Trump is not going to attack you in a surprise attack,’” Milley said. “I was carrying out his intent. President Trump’s intent. In order to protect the American people and prevent an escalation or an event.”
Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., seemed annoyed at this line of questioning from DesJarlais.
“The gentlemen’s time has expired,” he said, then huffed and added: “That was helpful.”
Later in the hearing, Jackson, the Texas congressman who had been White House physician, said Milley had failed to do his duty with the botched Afghanistan exit and the questions about the phone calls to the Chinese general.
“Gen. Milley, will you now resign?” Jackson asked.
Milley responded: “I serve at the pleasure of the president.”
2. Liz Cheney Apologizes for GOP
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who has been on the outs with her party over her repeated criticism of Trump, did nothing to make amends with fellow Republicans during the hearing.
Cheney is vice chairwoman of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by hundreds of Trump supporters, some of whom apparently were attempting to stop a joint session of Congress from certifying the Electoral College results for Biden over Trump.
Cheney chose to begin her remarks by talking about the riot, which occurred two days before Milley’s second call to Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, while Trump was still president.
Milley made one call Oct. 30, just four days before the election, and the second Jan. 8.
“Gen. Milley, on Jan. 6, we had a violent attack on our Capitol,” Cheney said. “It was an effort to stop the constitutionally prescribed process of counting electoral votes. The first time in our nation’s history we did not have a peaceful transfer of power. In the aftermath of that attack, many of the members of our constitutional system failed to do their duty. Many of them punted. Many of them today are still attempting to obstruct the investigation into that attack, attempting to whitewash what happened.”
Cheney said that was not the case with Milley, and she praised him for properly serving his country:
Gen. Milley, you found yourself in your constitutionally prescribed role standing in the breach. For any member of this committee, for any American, to question your loyalty to our nation, to question your understanding of our Constitution, your loyalty [to] our Constitution, your recognition of the civilian chain of command is despicable. I want to apologize for those members of this committere who have done so, and I want to thank you for standing in the breach when so many, including many in this room, failed to do so.
3. Contradicting Biden Again
McKenzie again contradicted Biden’s claim that none of his military leaders advised against his timeline for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It has been my view, I recommended a level of 2,500 [U.S. forces] a level that would have allowed us to hold Bagram and other airfields as well,” McKenzie said, referring to the large military air base that the U.S. abandoned in preference for staging an evacuation from the much smaller civilian airport in Kabul.
“Once you go below that level and make a decision to go to zero [troops], it is no longer feasible to hold Bagram,” Milley said.
4. ‘Conditions Set’ for al-Qaeda, ISIS Resurgence
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., asked: “Is the terrorist threat from Afghanistan greater today or lesser than it was pre-9/11?”
Milley said in as little as six months either the al-Qaeda or the Islamic State terrorist group could “reconstitute” there.
“Right this minute, it is lesser than it was on 9/11,” Milley said, adding: “I think it’s a real possibility in the not too distant future—six, 12, 18, 24, 36 months, that kind of time frame—[that we could see] reconstitution of al-Qaeda or ISIS, and it is our job now under different conditions to continue to protect American citizens against attacks from Afghanistan.”
Austin, the former four-star Army general who is Biden’s defense secretary, concurred that terrorists could take over the region.
“Terrorist organizations seek ungoverned spaces so that they can train, equip, and thrive,” Austin said. “So, there is clearly a possibility that that could happen here going forward.”
McKenzie responded “absolutely” to the question of whether al-Qaeda is still at war with the United States.
Responding later in the hearing to Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., Milley said radical Islamists across the world will be emboldened by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, including its capital.
“I think the Taliban sitting in Kabul significantly emboldens the radical jihadi movement globally,” Milley said. “The analogy I have used with many others is that it will likely put a shot of adrenaline into their arm.”
5. State Department’s Fault
Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., asked Austin why the United States did not rescue American citizens and applicants for or holders of Special Immigrant Visas, mostly Afghans who assisted the U.S. in its 20 years fighting in Afghanistan.
“On the issue of why we didn’t bring out civilians and SIVs sooner, again, the call on how to do that and when to do it is really a State Department call,” Austin said, before mentioning Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the academic and economist who was president of Afghanistan from September 2014 until he fled Aug. 15.
“Their concerns were, rightfully, that No. 1, they were being cautioned by the Ghani administration that if they withdrew American citizens and SIV applicants at a pace that was too fast, it would cause a collapse of the government that we were trying to prevent.”
Later, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., asked: “The blame for the disastrous withdrawal that everyone agrees was a disaster, who is to blame for that?”
The three military leaders sat silently for seven seconds before Johnson said: “I’ll let the silence speak for itself.”
6. Milley Says He Is Apolitical
Well before the new Woodward-Costa book, Milley was criticized for talking about the threat of “white rage.” Amid the presidential campaign in 2020, he also apologized for accompanying Trump in a walk that June through Lafayette Square to a church that had been burned by vandals.
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked about the concerns that the military had become politicized.
“I think an apolitical military is critical to the health of this republic,” Milley replied.
Milley told the Senate panel Tuesday that he talked not only with Woodward for the book “Peril,” but also spoke with authors Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, also Washington Post reporters, for their book “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” and with Michael Bender, a Wall Street Journal reporter, for his book “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost.”
Banks followed up by asking Milley why he talked to Woodward, authors of other anti-Trump books, and to the press in general.
“Part of my job is to communicate to the media what we do as a government, what we do as a military, to explain to the people,” Milley responded. “So I do interviews regularly with print media, books, documentaries, videos on TV, TV interviews. I think it’s part of a senior official’s job to be transparent, and I believe in a free press.”
Banks: “What happens when a military general becomes a political figure? You would agree that’s dangerous?”
Milley: “I think it’s dangerous and I have done my best to remain personally apolitical and try to keep the military out of actual domestic politics. I made a point of that from the time I became the chairman [on Sept. 30, 2019], and especially last summer.”
In December 2018, Trump nominated Milley, previously chief of staff for the Army, for the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff against the advice of his defense secretary at the time, Jim Mattis, and the incumbent chairman, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Regarding the Woodward-Costa book, Milley said he was concerned.
“I’m concerned there are mischaracterizations of me becoming a very politicized individual and that it’s my willingness to become politicized,” Milley said. “That is not true. I’m trying to stay apolitical and I believe I am. That’s part of my professional ethic.”