Army head ex­pected to lead Joint Chiefs of Staff

Trump’s likely choice, Gen. Mil­ley, led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan


Pres­i­dent Trump is ex­pected to choose the head of the Army to be­come the next chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tap­ping a vol­u­ble and un­con­ven­tional com­bat vet­eran to be­come the United States’ top mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, in­di­vid­u­als fa­mil­iar with White House plans said Fri­day.

In a move that re­flects his pen­chant for show­man­ship, the pres­i­dent plans to an­nounce his nom­i­na­tion of Gen. Mark Mil­ley at Satur­day’s an­nual Army-Navy foot­ball game, end­ing months of spec­u­la­tion about who will re­place the cur­rent chair­man, Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., who is due to step down next fall.

Ac­cord­ing to the in­di­vid­u­als, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss a de­ci­sion that has not been made pub­lic, Trump con­sid­ered two se­nior of­fi­cers, Mil­ley and the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David Gold­fein, whom De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis pre­ferred.

The se­lec­tion of a chair­man, who over­sees global op­er­a­tions and serves as the pres­i­dent’s chief ad­viser on mil­i­tary-re­lated mat­ters, rep­re­sents an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity for Trump to make his mark on the U.S. mil­i­tary.

If con­firmed by the Se­nate, Mil­ley would bring to the job a dis­tin­guished record as a com­man­der in the coun­terin­sur­gency wars of the past two decades. A grad­u­ate of Princeton Univer­sity, Mil­ley served as a Green Beret and later com­manded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Army chief, Mil­ley cham­pi­oned a pro­posal to cre­ate spe­cial­ized units to train lo­cal forces in Afghanistan while also seek­ing to im­prove the Army’s readi­ness as the Pen­tagon re­ori­ents to­ward chal­lenges from Rus­sia and China.

Trump’s se­lec­tion de­fies an ex­pec­ta­tion among many Pen­tagon of­fi­cials that the next chair­man would be se­lected from the Air Force, in keep­ing with an unof­fi­cial al­ter­na­tion be­tween the ser­vices. Dun­ford, a Ma­rine, re­placed an Army chair­man in 2015; pre­vi­ously, a Navy ad­mi­ral served in the job.

It’s not clear why Mat­tis pre­ferred Gold­fein, an­other re­spected of­fi­cer. Some cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials cited the pres­i­dent’s choice as a sign of the Pen­tagon chief’s di­min­ished in­flu­ence with the White House.

“It’s a pretty big de­ci­sion to go against Mat­tis,” said one for­mer top de­fense of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

Cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials said Mat­tis has a good re­la­tion­ship with Mil­ley. When the de­fense sec­re­tary wanted to re­think the war in Afghanistan, he took the un­usual step of go­ing to Mil­ley to brain­storm, even though as Army chief of staff he did not have di­rect over­sight of the war, said a for­mer se­nior de­fense of­fi­cial.

Mat­tis was frus­trated by the Army’s in­abil­ity to slim down big head­quar­ters in Afghanistan and push more soldiers into an ac­tive role sup­port­ing Afghan troops in the field. Mil­ley was seen as the kind of of­fi­cer who could pro­duce a more un­ortho­dox ap­proach, of­fi­cials said.

The re­sult of that ef­fort was the Se­cu­rity Force As­sis­tance Bri­gade, now seek­ing to help Afghan troops re­verse a pro­longed come­back by the Tal­iban.

Mil­ley is poised to as­cend to the top uni­formed po­si­tion at a chal­leng­ing mo­ment for the mil­i­tary’s all-vol­un­teer force. The mil­i­tary must con­tend with a po­lar­ized coun­try, a shrink­ing pool of re­cruits and a man­date to shed the ex­trem­ist fo­cus of the post-9/11 era and fo­cus on ma­jor pow­ers such as Rus­sia and China.

One of Mil­ley’s big­gest chal­lenges may be han­dling an im­pul­sive com­man­der in chief, whose rhetoric and ac­tions, in­clud­ing his de­ci­sion to de­ploy ac­tive-duty forces to the south­ern border ahead of the midterm elec­tions, have threat­ened to politi­cize the force.

Many in the Pen­tagon pri­vately ques­tioned the need for the de­ploy­ment and wor­ried the troops were be­ing used to a po­lit­i­cal end.

Dun­ford and Mat­tis have sought to nav­i­gate those chal­lenges in part by at­tempt­ing to shield the mil­i­tary. Both have de­clined to speak pub­licly about their views in ar­eas where Trump has stirred con­tro­versy. Dun­ford has em­pha­sized his duty to ex­e­cute legally is­sued or­ders, no mat­ter his opin­ions.

His re­la­tion­ship with Trump has been more dis­tant than his pre­de­ces­sor, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, had with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

It’s not clear how Mil­ley will nav­i­gate po­ten­tial pit­falls. Oc­ca­sion­ally, his will­ing­ness to speak out has ap­peared to put him at odds with his com­man­der in chief.

Af­ter Trump was crit­i­cized for ap­pear­ing to con­done some white-na­tion­al­ist pro­test­ers in Char­lottesville in 2017, Mil­ley tweeted the Army “doesn’t tol­er­ate racism, ex­trem­ism, or ha­tred in our ranks,” seem­ingly dis­tanc­ing him­self from Trump’s com­ments.

Mil­ley, who at­tended prep school in Mas­sachusetts, has a some­what un­usual back­ground for a top mil­i­tary of­fi­cer. He is a long­time friend of TV pro­ducer and writer David E. Kel­ley.


Pres­i­dent Trump with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Mil­ley, whose nom­i­na­tion he plans to an­nounce at the Army-Navy foot­ball game.

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