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Transcript: NPR's Full Interview With Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman Mark Milley

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, talked with NPR's Steve Inskeep about the potential for a disputed election.
Olivier Douliery
AFP via Getty Images
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, talked with NPR's Steve Inskeep about the potential for a disputed election.

In an interview on Sunday with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley took questions about his time in quarantine, the military's role in potential election disputes, the war in Afghanistan and more.

Steve Inskeep: Let's just begin with the most basic question about what you're doing right now. Why did you go into quarantine and what has the routine been for you?

Gen. Mark Milley: Well, thanks, Steve, and I appreciate you having me on. I just want to kind of review the bidding here and assure the American people that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are fully functional, even though we're functional from home. So, we had a series of meetings, I guess it was the week before last, the week of 28 of September, the beginning of October. And in those meetings, as I think is publicly known, was Admiral [Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard]. Admiral Ray called me on Monday morning on 5 October and said that he was positive for a COVID-19 test.

So we put the word out and we counseled everybody. We got with the docs and we went ahead and imposed on ourselves the CDC guidelines, and we decided we would go into self quarantine or self isolation, I guess, and we would test. So we tested several times last week. Thankfully, none of the Joint Chiefs, the actual Joint Chiefs, came out positive. We did have one other officer who attended the meeting, as you know, the vice commandant of the Marine Corps. He did test positive. But we've been strictly adhering to the CDC protocols and none of us are symptomatic and so we're in good shape.

And we're operating from the home. We all have various SCIFs, special compartmented information facilities, built into our houses, whether you're here or down at the naval annex or downtown, in the Marine Corps commandant's house. And we all have all the same communication systems we have in the Pentagon. We have all the multiple VTCs. We have the phones. We can go to any level of security and so on. So we're quite able to operate and maintain our daily duties and oversee the responsibilities that we have on a daily basis.

General, did you feel, aside from the health concerns, did you feel it was important that you set an example by following the CDC rules as exactly as you could?

Well, I think it is important, absolutely. We have a force of 2.3 million troops out there and we were possibly exposed to someone who we know was positive, so we went right to the book, went right to the doctors and pulled out the guidelines.

And for us, by the way, there's actually, there's a set of rules that is for critical infrastructure personnel, which the Joint Chiefs are considered critical infrastructure personnel, and we're following that. Which is checking temperatures, wearing a mask, taking — the testing is actually not part of that, so we're going over and above and beyond the protocols. And we don't actually have, by the rules, we don't actually have to isolate ourselves. But I thought that was prudent, given our duties and responsibilities and given our communication capabilities at home. So I just want to make sure that the senior military leaders of the U.S. military are safe and able to operate. And I think it sets a good example for the force as well.

You mentioned a mask. Are you making sure that troops see you wearing a mask from time to time?

When it's appropriate, we wear masks. And I like to think I am, but I know there's occasions when I don't wear a mask, but yeah we've been pretty strict about wearing masks ourselves.

And I guess I should ask about local rules. Are you governed by local mask orders, wherever a U.S. military base might be?

We would be if we were visiting a military base. We would adhere to whatever the local commander and the local rules are.

And the troops on that base the same?

Sure. And the Department of Defense has put out a variety of rules. So the local conditions would dictate what our uniform and mask, et cetera, would be. Here in the Pentagon, we are adhering to those protocols that are out there right now. And for the Joint Chiefs ourselves, we're adhering to them.

General, as you know, the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, said the other day that he expected a big reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by early next year. And then after he made that statement, President Trump said on Twitter that troops, should, he use the wordshould, be home by Christmas. In light of those public statements, what specific orders, if any, have you received?

Well, thanks, Steve, for that. We have a plan, a series of responsible drawdown options that has been briefed to the president. I'm not going to go into specific numbers for the future. I think that would be appropriate for me as the chairman to talk specific numbers in future operations, we typically don't do that. But we have a responsible plan to end the war with U.S. interests clearly in mind. As you know, we the United States government signed an agreement on 28 February.

At that time, we had, roughly speaking, about 12,000, a little bit better, U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That came down to, call it 8,500, 8,600 or so by mid summer, and we're on a plan to do a responsible, deliberate drawdown to about 4,500 here very shortly. And then future drawdowns will be determined by the president. And I'm not going to disclose specific numbers and what those are. The whole agreement and all of the drawdown plans are conditions-based, and I expect that we'll have further discussions on the conditions and ensure that they warrant. The key here is that we're trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately, and to do it on terms that guarantee the safety of the U.S. vital national security interests that are at stake in Afghanistan.

You used an important phrase, general, conditions-based. I want to make sure that people understand that. I think you're telling me you're not going to pick an arbitrary date like the end of the year or Christmas and everybody's going to leave. People are leaving when the situation on the ground makes it possible for them to leave without endangering your mission. Is that correct?

Well, that has always been our instructions. That's always been the agreement. That was the decision of the president on a conditions-based withdrawal. And and as you look at the agreement, the 28 February agreement, one of those conditions is: enter Afghan negotiations. Those are ongoing right now. That's important. Another one is not attacking U.S. forces; not conducting major attacks in the major urban areas of Afghanistan; severing ties with al-Qaida. And there's a whole variety of other conditions. So we're monitoring all of those conditions closely. And we're, we the military, are giving our best military advice on those conditions so that the president can make an informed, deliberate, responsible decision.

You said one of those conditions having to do with peace talks is being met. Are all the others being met right now?

Well, the peace talks are happening, they're not finalized, so I caveat that because they are ongoing in Doha as you know. It depends. It depends on the specific condition and it depends on how you want to measure it. In terms of violence, for example, if you start measuring the violence from, call it four or five months ago, has there been a significant reduction in violence? Answer: not significant. If you measure it from two to three years ago or five years ago, there has been a significant reduction in violence.

So, you have to look at this stuff analytically and we do. And you have to put it through a high degree of rigor, because you can get two people looking at the same set of phenomena and they will come up with two different conclusions. So what I want to make sure is that we're going through a high degree of rigor and providing good analysis for the president to make a responsible, deliberate decision.

General, as some people will know, you held a virtual town hall recently. In that town hall, you talked about diversity, you talked about inclusion, and you also told everyone in uniform to "hold the Constitution close to your heart." Now, I know that's something that anybody in the military could say at any time over generations, but you said it in that particular way now. Why did you feel it was important to remind people of that now?

Well, I've reminded people of that for years, for four years as the chief of staff of the Army and in many years before that, during reenlistment ceremonies, promotion ceremonies, I always talk about the Constitution and its importance to us as a military. In that we, of all the countries in the world, I think that we are the only one or at least one of the very few that swears an oath of allegiance to an idea that's embedded in a document called the U.S. Constitution. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to an individual, a king, a queen, a president or anything else. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to a country, for that matter. We don't swear an oath of allegiance to a flag, a tribe, a religion or any of that. We swear an oath to an idea or a set of ideas and values that are embedded in our Constitution.

And we, the U.S. military, are willing to die to preserve those ideas and values. And we're willing to die in order to preserve them and pass them on to the next generation. And they're all in the Constitution. They're all fundamental to the Constitution. And so that's why I always remind ourselves of the oath, because we in the military, we swear literally a sacred oath. We swear to lay our lives down for those values and those ideas that are embedded within the Constitution. So I think it's critically important to always, not just recently, but always remind ourselves of that. And I've been doing it for years, and I know many others do as well.

How do you want the military to apply that in this divided time?

Well, I think that, Steve, I think that we have a very, very long tradition of an apolitical military that's embedded really from the days of George Washington shortly afterwards when he gave his famous Newburgh Address and they were encouraging George Washington to seize power or become a king of some kind, and he gave a very famous speech.

And we have established a very long 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics. And so I think that that's an important principle to adhere to, to continue to adhere to and we will adhere to it.

In addition to that, we have a long tradition of adhering to law. We're a country of laws. We're a country where the rule of law matters. So we, the U.S. military, we are sworn to obey the lawful orders of our civilian leadership. And we want to ensure that there is always civilian leadership, civilian control of the military, and we will obey the lawful orders of civilian control of the military. A longstanding tradition, and we adhere to the rule of law. I think those are fundamental, those are principles that we always — we as a republic, as a democratic people, we want our military to adhere to that. And we will.

I know that you've said in statements to Congress and elsewhere that you want to stay out of any election disputes and yet people raise that possibility of some kind of dispute over the election results after Nov. 3. Are you confident that the legal process for resolving those disputes — the courts, the electoral votes, the vote in the House of Representatives, if there's some problem with the electoral votes, other safeguards — are you confident that the legal process is strong enough that you will always know who your civilian leader is, who the president is, whose orders you need to take?

I am. I'm very confident in the resilience of the American institutions and the American government and the American people's adherence to the principles of rules of law. And we, the military, stay out of domestic politics — very, very deeply rooted into the very essence of our republic. And I would tell you that in my mind, if there's a disputed election — it's not in my mind, it's in the law.

If there's a disputed election, that'll be handled by Congress and the courts. And I'm quite confident that that will be the case this time around, as it has been several times before. This isn't the first time that someone has suggested that there might be a contested election. And if there is, it'll be handled appropriately by the courts and by the U.S. Congress. There's no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero. There is no role there.

One other question along those lines. As you know, general, the other day, a number of alleged extremists, terrorists were arrested in Michigan accused of a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Now, that's a law enforcement matter. That's a civilian matter, not your business. But of course, the military is your business. And law enforcement officials are concerned about domestic extremism. How widespread, if at all, is the problem of individual extremists within the ranks of the U.S. military?

We actually monitor that pretty closely, Steve, and we have for years, by the way. It's always a concern, extremists of any bent, and we pay close attention to symbols, tattoos, language, behavior, et cetera, for any member of the U.S. military that displays any sort of extremist behavior. And where we discover it, we apply the appropriate measures of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and enforce good order and discipline in the force. So that is something that we monitor. I don't see it as a widespread issue in the military right now. And I'm and I'm not overly concerned about it, but it is something that we do monitor and watch.

By whatever metrics you have, is it getting any worse or any better?

I would say that it's been, based on the data I've seen over the years, mostly, actually, while I was chief of staff of the Army, it is roughly stable at a very, very tiny, tiny percentage of the force displays any of those types of behaviors or attitudes or gives any indicators and warnings of any kind of extremist behavior that would lead to violent outbreaks.

Final question for you, general. We've just gone through this period where your commander-in-chief tested positive for coronavirus and went to the hospital. There were concerns about his state at different points. We've gone through this thing with the Joint Chiefs going into isolation. You and the military continue to have to deal with coronavirus just like everybody else in the world. Have you been confident that at every moment the U.S. military has been ready for whatever might come its way?

Yeah, absolutely. There's no doubt in my mind. We've had, I guess, it's less than 50,000 or so that have ever tested positive from day 1 out of almost two-and-a-half million troops, both active guard reserve sort of thing. And that's a relatively small percentage. Unfortunately, we suffered eight deaths. Again, a small number, but tremendously impactful to those families.

Right now we've got about, we got less than 50, I think it's 39 or 40, that are in the hospital with COVID. So statistically speaking, the numbers of those infected within the U.S. military is very, very small, 2% overall, 1% or less than a percent actually current. So relatively tiny percentage of people.

And there's reasons for that: demographic, there is discipline, we imposed testing, we're doing lots of testing of our force, we enforced various discipline rules and mask and so on. But I would tell you that we're always watching it. You are clearly aware of the TR that had a little bit of an impact out in the Pacific.

Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier.

That's right. The aircraft carrier. So that had some impact there. We've imposed some pretty stringent rules on our ships or any system that we have where troops are going to be in close contact with each other, such as ships or vehicles, airplanes, crews of airplanes, et cetera.

So we are monitoring very, very closely readiness, staying steady globally in our fundamental mission to deter any attack on U.S. forces, U.S. interests or the homeland.

And if deterrence fails, our ability to fight and our readiness and willingness to be able to conduct military operations, those haven't missed a beat. We're continuing to do that despite the fact that we've got a significant amount of troops committed to the COVID fight here at home. We've got 300,000 troops or so overseas. Some battling terrorists, we're deterring any sort of aggression in Asia and Europe and Middle East, et cetera. And at home, they're fighting COVID and fighting wildfires and dealing with hurricanes. So the U.S. military's readiness and capability has not been significantly impacted, from my view. We remain a very, very steady force internationally and domestically, and we are ready for whatever comes our way.

[Tom Bowman, NPR's reporter who covers the Pentagon, was listening in. At this point in the interview, he asked Gen. Milley a few questions.]

Tom Bowman: Are you eating Cheetos and watching old movies and walking around with your jogging suit on? [laughter]

No, I am not doing any of that. I'm definitely not watching old movies. I have a full day every day. I could tell you that Dave Butler and the team keep me quite busy all day long in a wide variety of things. I don't know if either of you have been to my quarters here on Myer whether it was here or as the chief staff of the army, but these are unique, to say the least, in terms of their communications capabilities.

And I've got a room here, an office. That is incredibly capable. I can reach anywhere in the world in an instant and I've got all of the screens and capabilities right here, so yeah, and I get a lot of work done right here, actually.

One follow-up on Afghanistan. I know the president said that troops should be home by Christmas. What would happen if you pulled all troops out by Christmas? What impact would that have on peace talks and on security in the country, do you think?

Well, I think that's in my view, Tom, that's the level of, that's the rigor and the analysis, that is the sort of puts and takes the advantages and disadvantages and risks that I owe the president as part of my best military advice. If this, then that. And that's exactly what we do. I don't think, frankly, it would be appropriate, and I know you wouldn't want me to, to speculate in an open forum on what I might advise the president on what those risks are. So and I think that I owe that advice to him and I owe it in the confines and privacy of discussions between his military adviser and himself.

[An audio setting prevents two questions from being recorded.]

[A question about troop levels.]

Yeah, so, again, I default back to we have a plan. It's a conditions-based plan, and right now, the only number that's publicly out there that I am aware of in terms of any sort of official number is 4,500 in the not-too-distant future by November. And that's the plan. And we're continuing to monitor those conditions. And as further decisions that the president makes based on those conditions, then we'll execute those decisions. But right now, for me to go beyond that, for me to go beyond the publicly disclosed number of 4,500 would not be, I don't think it'd be a wise thing for me to do.

[A question about troop levels in relation to national security adviser Robert O'Brien saying that the U.S. will cut the number of troops serving in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year.]

I think that Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I'm not going to engage in speculation. I'm going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president. And then when we get to the point where we have further discussions and further decisions, those will be appropriately made public. But right now, Tom, it's just not appropriate for me to do that. If others want to do it, that's up to them. But right now, it's not my place to do that. But I do appreciate the questions, Tom.

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