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Was it wrong for the top general to thwart a clearly unhinged president?

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley participates in a news briefing at the Pentagon May 6, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

America’s top military commander justifiably feared for the sanity of his boss in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency and took steps to circumvent Trump’s authority in case he attempted an unprovoked nuclear strike or other belligerent action.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, clearly sidestepped all notions of civilian control over the military and, if reports are confirmed, that could cost him his job. But the nation and world owe him a debt of gratitude for intervening to contain a clearly unhinged chief executive.

Revelations in a new book by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa are a chilling wake-up call to America that Trump was capable of running wild with the awesome, unchecked military powers at his command. Equally frightening is the chance that Trump hasn’t given up on retaking the White House in 2024, as the self-absorbed former president indicated he would on Saturday while the rest of the nation was focusing on 9/11 anniversary ceremonies.

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Examples of Trump’s narcissism abound, such as when Milley was summoned to accompany the president on a walk across the street from the White House so the president could stage a photo-op while troops and police attacked Black Lives Matter protesters. Milley’s concerns reportedly peaked around the November election, when he feared Trump might attempt some kind of spectacular military action against China or Iran to influence the election outcome.

Woodward and Costa reported that Trump had even sent Milley a letter ordering a full withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan to be completed before his final day in office — an action that would have made the chaotic pullout under President Joe Biden seem calm and orderly by comparison. Milley reportedly determined that not even Trump’s national security adviser had known of the Afghanistan withdrawal order. They quietly dissuaded the president.

Perhaps the most dangerous moment for Milley, Vice President Mike Pence and then-CIA Director Gina Haspel was the Trump-inspired Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Trump demanded that Pence intervene to stop the confirmation vote. Haspel reportedly told Milley, “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.” Milley feared Trump might attempt a nuclear strike somewhere in the world as a diversion, prompting a top-secret talk with other top military leaders about not complying. Milley phoned his increasingly nervous counterpart in China to offer reassurances and, stepping way beyond his authority, promise that he would personally send a warning if a U.S. attack was imminent.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Milley that she worried about Trump’s access to the nuclear codes and that he was “crazy.” To which Milley replied, “I agree with you on everything.”

Milley hasn’t denied the book’s contents. Prominent Republicans are demanding his resignation, saying some of his actions were treasonous. Perhaps. But his and others’ heroic behind-the-scenes efforts may well have averted a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS).