Coasting through his confirmation hearing on Thursday, President Trump’s pick for chairman of the Joint Chiefs drew questions from lawmakers on Iran, his independence, and his views on military leadership, but few challenges.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle did repeatedly ask Army Gen. Mark Milley about the Trump administration’s dearth of confirmed leaders at the Pentagon and how it has affected civilian control of the military.
“Having a confirmed person in place, I think, clearly helps out us in uniform and it also clearly delineates—you mentioned civilian control of the military—I think it reinforces that because the civilian oversight is of critical importance and they interface with Congress and other inter-agencies,” Millley responded to one such question. “I think filling those positions is critically important.”
There are currently 18 senior political positions inside the Pentagon with unconfirmed officials serving in an acting capacity, including the defense secretary, deputy defense secretary, chief management officer and Army and Air Force secretaries.
Milley also vowed not to be intimidated by the president into providing poor advice. “Absolutely not. By no one. Ever,” said the Army chief of staff. “I’ll give my best military advice. It’ll be candid. It’ll be honest. It’ll be rigorous and it’ll be thorough. And that’s what I’ll do every single time.”
“We are not going to be intimidating into making stupid decisions,” he continued. “We will give our best military advice regardless of consequences to our self.”
Both Republicans and Democrats praised Milley from the dais. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., committed to supporting his nomination; Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats said, “I don’t think there’s anyone that I have met in my work here that I have more confidence in and in the position that you’re about to embark upon.”
Milley was also asked to address ongoing tensions with Iran, whose “malign activity” he said has increased in “intensity” since Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year. But he disputed that the kind of military action that the Pentagon would likely undertake in response to any further incidents would distract from the military’s top-level strategy to prioritize China and Russia.
“I don’t think anyone is seriously considering anything approaching” sending 150,000 troops to Iran, Milley said. Single-strike operations—like the one ordered and then canceled by Trump in response to the shooting down of an American drone last month—“would not have significant impact on the main effort of China or Russia or wherever,” Milley said.
Still, he allowed that in the abstract a broader conflict with Tehran would disrupt the Pentagon’s strategy, which declared that the United States’ greatest competitors are the so-called “great powers,” like China and Russia.
“You mentioned a war with Iran,” Milley said. “I don’t know that that would happen but if it did happen it would obviously have significant impact on the distribution of the force relative to those other priorities.”