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President Trump tapped Gen. Mark Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Here are 3 things to know.

Statements by the JCS chairman can have a significant impact on public opinion.

- September 30, 2019

In July 2019, Gen. Mark Milley became the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), replacing Gen. Joseph Dunford. Although previous chairmen have often tried to fly below the media’s radar, it may be difficult for Milley to avoid the spotlight in today’s partisan environment. Here are three things to know:

1. President Trump personally picked the new JCS chairman, as have many presidents.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump told an audience of veterans, “Under the leadership of Barack Obama…the generals have been reduced to rubble.” After the election, there was speculation Trump might “purge” the senior ranks — an impulse shared by his predecessors, including John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Unlike other bureaucratic appointments, four-star military officers typically serve fixed terms, ranging from two to four years, and their replacements must usually come from within the military. This makes it difficult for presidents to enact rapid changes in military leadership. Nevertheless, as of this week, Trump has nominated — and the Senate has confirmed — five of seven members of the Joint Chiefs and 10 of 11 combatant commanders.

Analysts have long seen Milley as Trump’s favorite general. Reportedly against former defense secretary James Mattis’s recommendation, Trump named Milley as his choice last December. My research suggests this isn’t really a surprise, as presidents tend to identify generals or admirals who are closely aligned to their own policy preferences.

In my dissertation, I detail how presidents pay special attention to selection of the JCS chairman. Kennedy pulled Maxwell Taylor out of retirement; George H.W. Bush nominated Colin Powell, despite his non-traditional pedigree; and Clinton chose John Shalikashvili because of his cocktail party banter.

Presidents don’t always get who they want. Sometimes a member of Congress blocks a nomination or convinces a president not to put a nominee forward, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) did for Peter Pace in 2007 or as Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) did for Mark Welsh in 2015. But when the president’s party controls the Senate — like now — the president usually gets his choice.

Presidents have also picked JCS chairmen whose views later surprised them. Reagan chose Bill Crowe because he was impressed by his briefing skills, but the two bumped heads over support for the Contra rebels. After Crowe retired, he endorsed Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. Arguably, Trump misread Mattis’s disagreement with Barack Obama as a sign he was in agreement with Trump — but Mattis resigned in December. Milley has been Army chief since 2015, however, so the president likely knows who he is getting.

2. The JCS chairman doesn’t have much formal power, but he’s a major political actor.

By law, the chairman isn’t in the military chain of command and has little formal authority, outside control of the Joint Staff. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 made the chairman the president’s principal military adviser, which means he typically is the one officer who has a regular audience with the president.

This type of access brings particular influence in an administration where national security processes are undervalued, as they were in Kennedy’s “kitchen cabinet” or as they appear to be in the Trump White House.

Although presidents receive other advice, the chairman has private information about military plans and processes, battlefield intelligence and — importantly — the advice of the combatant commanders and service chiefs. He also has frequent access to the secretary of defense.

All this information and access gives the chairman power to approve papers or charts presented in meetings, limit or expand military options, characterize the advice of commanders and service chiefs, and answer political leaders’ questions when discussions move beyond assumptions Pentagon planners have made.

My research suggests presidents who get the chairman they want have an easier time implementing their foreign policy vision than presidents who don’t. This isn’t because presidents appoint sycophants — Milley, for example, has a reputation for being candid and brash. Rather, it is because presidents feel they can trust officers they select.

3. Milley will lead the military in a difficult domestic political environment

Milley walks into his new role as the public face of the U.S. military in one of the most polarized periods in U.S. history, less than one week after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the House would initiate an impeachment inquiry.

In this context, there will be pressure for Milley to take sides. Milley’s predecessor, Dunford, attempted to navigate tempestuous political waters by keeping his own views off the front page, but his approach has limitations.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper already has signaled he is more committed to transparency about military policy than either Mattis or Patrick Shanahan. We may now see more Pentagon press conferences than in recent years, with the chairman at the secretary’s side. Milley may be asked to defend the president’s tweets or policy decisions in real time.

As my research with Peter Feaver and Kyle Dropp — along with a recent paper by Tyler Jost and Joshua Kertzer — has shown, a chairman’s statements can have a significant impact on public opinion, cutting through partisan debates in ways statements by other civilian leaders may not.

When military leaders have refused to express their views on controversial political issues, such as the decision to send troops to the border or to reallocate funds to pay for the wall, they create an opening for political leaders to take advantage of this silence and claim military leaders support their policy.

Milley’s own style and reputation for candor suggest he will take a more public approach than Dunford, who kept an unusually low profile. Analysts will scrutinize Milley’s words closely and he will face difficult questions about issues ranging from Ukraine to military construction cuts. Congress, the media and the U.S. public are likely to see every statement he makes in a partisan context.

Nevertheless, it is difficult for the military to stay out of the partisan fray when civilian leaders politicize the military, and public disengagement is not without costs. Milley’s response to this challenge will have an immense impact on U.S. national security and his legacy as chairman.

Jim Golby (@jimgolby) is a defense policy advisor at the U.S. Mission to NATO. He previously served as a special adviser to the Vice President of the United States, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, and as a company commander and scout platoon leader in combat in Iraq. These views are those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army or the U.S. Mission to NATO.