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Esper and Milley appear to adopt different strategies to deal with Trump as election approaches

Posted September 21, 2020 6:06 p.m. EDT

— The Pentagon's two most senior figures were so angry about President Donald Trump's unprecedented attack on senior military leadership earlier this month that they got on the phone with the White House chief of staff to express their dismay, according to several defense officials.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley spoke to Mark Meadows after Trump accused Pentagon leadership of waging wars to boost the profits of weapons manufacturers.

"I'm not saying the military's in love with me -- the soldiers are, the top people in the Pentagon probably aren't because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy," Trump told reporters at a White House news conference on Labor Day.

The officials said Milley, who served for years in combat zones around the globe, was particularly distressed. Another defense official summed up reaction at the Pentagon, stating "the President went too far."

Meadows attempted to walk back what Trump said on Fox News the next day, claiming the comments were "more directed about the military industrial complex."

Concerns about Trump's volatility

But the damage was already done, adding to concerns among many in Pentagon leadership about the President's volatility and his potential to make unpredictable decisions during the campaign and beyond, whether he wins or loses in November. CNN has spoken to multiple defense officials about the stresses felt at the Pentagon in the runup to the election in particular.

While it's always a priority for the military to keep out of politics, the President's attempts to politicize the forces means this election is seen as particularly sensitive.

"This is no normal election season. This is electioneering on steroids, given the way President Trump politicizes everything," said retired Rear Adm. and CNN analyst John Kirby who served as media adviser and spokesman to former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen during the 2008 transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama in 2008. "So, I'm not surprised at all to see leaders like Esper and Milley tread carefully around the public square. If I was advising them, I'd tell them to stay on the sidewalks as much as possible."

In the past, some chairmen have also sought to stay out of the public eye in advance of the election so they don't get drawn into the partisanship the campaign. Both men remain available to talk to the President on a moment's notice and continue to meet with him.

Esper and Milley appear to have adopted different strategies to deal with the situation in the run up to Election Day.

Esper is widely reported to be on thin ice with the President and he has decided to continue to travel outside Washington to visit troops and senior figures in the defense industry in the US and overseas. His travels serve to keep him away from Trump but also convey an aura that it's "business as usual" and he is not worried about being fired, according to a defense official directly familiar with his thinking.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told CNN that Esper's extensive travel is essential to him carrying out his job.

"With personnel in every state and more than 100 countries, and American national security interests across the globe, this travel is a requirement for a Secretary of Defense. While travel has become more difficult in the Covid environment, the Secretary has seen great value in his recent trips. This includes travel to the Indo-Pacific where he witnessed joint exercises and engaged directly with partner nations, and to the west coast to hear from innovate defense industry vendors and see our capital assets in action. We do not foresee a change in our travel schedule," Hoffman said.

Milley, on the other hand, is staying in Washington as much as possible. Aides say the pandemic has limited his typical overseas travel. But he is said to be on good terms with the President and staying in town means he's physically near the White House and ready to talk to the President face to face at any time, on issues ranging from wildfires on the West Coast to the prospect of Iranian or Russian provocations, officials say. A significant concern for Milley is how to advise Trump if he decides to invoke the Insurrection Act in the wake of civil unrest -- a move that could put military force on the streets against civilians.

Esper and Milley oppose using Insurrection Act

Both Milley and Esper were deeply opposed to that the first time Trump suggested it back in June following protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd's death. The President has made several public references to using the act in recent weeks as he pushes his law and order messaging on the campaign trail, even as he claims he doesn't want to do it. Milley continues to get briefed on protests and unrest, in part so he can continue to make the case that civilian law enforcement must remain a first priority to be used rather than the military barring a catastrophe that overwhelms civilian authorities.

Both Milley and Esper are staying out of the public eye to avoid being dragged into partisan politics, their aides say. But they both hope to avoid any missteps that would anger the White House. Neither has held a Pentagon press conference in months in order to avoid being questioned on issues that could highlight their differences with the President, according to several defense officials.

And while Esper is widely acknowledged to be on the outs with the President, Milley remains in his good graces even after he publicly apologized for his part in walking with Trump and other political leaders outside the White House in Lafayette Square wearing a combat uniform during the June unrest.

The highly principled Milley is said to remain deeply bruised by that event. His aides will not comment on it, but they are emphasizing that the four star general who serves as Trump's chief military adviser is sharply focused on ensuring any orders from the President are within the parameters of the Constitution and are therefore legal, moral and ethical.

However, the Pentagon's public effort to keep things low key heading into the election may not last with several crises brewing. The Pentagon's Cyber Command is operating around the clock looking for any evidence of election interference. And despite the President's optimism that the coronavirus will disappear, military planners now calculate the they must plan for a Covid-driven environment affecting military operations through the summer of 2021, one defense official told CNN. In addition, shortly after the election Congress will take up the issue of stripping the names of Confederate generals from military bases. Trump is adamantly opposed to the move but top Pentagon leaders privately support it.

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