Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman who clashed with President Donald Trump but found new footing under President Biden, reiterated in his retirement speech Friday that the U.S. military is loyal to the Constitution above anything or anyone else.
“We don’t take an oath to a king, or a queen, to a tyrant or dictator or wannabe dictator,” Milley said in an apparent reference to Trump. He added that troops did not risk their lives to watch “this great experiment in democracy perish.”
Milley stepped aside Friday as his successor, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., was sworn in to the top military post in front of military personnel at Joint Base Meyer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on a day filled with ceremonial traditions. That included Milley inspecting the units lined up in a large field at the base, some in Revolutionary War uniforms, a military band playing the national anthem and the presentation of a retirement certificate. Brown will officially take over the post this weekend.
Biden, alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Harris, praised the general for providing advice that was steady and to the point. Biden also commended him for prioritizing American democracy above all. “When it comes to the Constitution, that is and always has been Mark’s North Star,” Biden said.
Milley had a sometimes tumultuous four-year tenure capping a career that spanned over four decades. His was one of the most consequential and polarizing tenures of any military leader in recent memory. Milley was atop the Pentagon during the Trump administration’s chaotic final months, the Biden administration’s frantic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing effort to aid Ukraine as the Russian invasion draws closer to the two-year mark.
To his frustrated critics, Milley often voiced his opinion on hot-button issues, notably defending a policy, implemented after the U.S. Capitol attack in 2021, that mandated military personnel to study domestic extremism. In one viral moment stemming from Republican attacks, he told members of Congress, “I want to understand White rage, and I’m White.”
Supporters lauded Milley for standing up to what they viewed as Trump’s dangerous ambitions. After the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, when Trump called for clearing demonstrators out of Lafayette Square near the White House, Milley initially walked alongside the president and other top administration officials as they marched to a church for a photo opportunity.
The general peeled off from the procession and later issued a public apology, saying it was a “mistake” to be there. “My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Milley said.
On Friday, the leaders interspersed warnings with a lighter tone. Milley joked that the very fact that it was the last time the public would hear him in uniform was “cause for applause,” and Austin teased Milley about wearing his Boston roots on his sleeve, while quoting Boston Bruins hockey great Bobby Orr on the virtues of hard work.
Before welcoming Brown and thanking Milley for his service, Biden paid tribute to Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California who died Thursday at age 90. “Dianne made her mark on everything from national security to the environment, gun safety to protecting civil liberties,” Biden said.
After about 45 minutes of ceremonies, including musical numbers and the presentations of the colors, Milley asked Brown to raise his right hand, flanked by troops and his wife, Sharene. The outgoing chief then swore in Brown, saying his successor was the right person to lead the military during such a fraught time.
The two then saluted each other and shook hands with Biden, Austin and Harris. In his speech, Brown said it was a “tremendous privilege” to become the 21st chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is the second Black man to lead the Join Chiefs, after Gen. Colin Powell.
Brown’s nomination to the chairman’s job was approved by the Senate last week amid an ongoing hold on about 300 other senior officer promotions by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. Tuberville has imposed the blockade in a bid to force the Biden administration to rescind its abortion policy, which reimburses travel expenses incurred by service members unable to obtain the procedure in the state where they are assigned.
Austin urged lawmakers to “swiftly confirm” the remaining nominees. Biden called the blockade “outrageous.” “It’s thoroughly, totally unacceptable,” Biden said Friday. “I’ve been here a long time. I’ve never seen anything like this” with promotions “held hostage by the political agenda of one senator.”
Brown served for the past three years as the top officer in the Air Force. He has held positions overseeing operations in the Pacific, Europe and the Middle East. When his nomination was announced in the spring, officials highlighted his experience helping to conceive and lead the air campaign against the Islamic State, and his expertise on the challenges that China poses. As a member of the Joint Staff, he has been involved in the effort to arm, train and advise the Ukrainian military.
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Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.