WASHINGTON - President Donald 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 America's top military officer, individuals familiar with White House plans said on 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 Dunford Jr., who is due to step down next fall.
According to the individuals, who spoke on the condition anonymity to discuss a decision that has not been made public, Trump considered two senior officers, Milley and 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 matters, represents an important opportunity for Trump to make a 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 last two decades. A graduate of Princeton University, Milley served as a Green Beret and later commanded troops in Afghanistan.
As the 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.
It's not clear why Mattis preferred Goldfein, another widely respected, cerebral officer. Some current and former officials cited the president's decision to go with Milley 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.
Despite Mattis's preference for the Air Force officer, he has a good relationship with Milley. When the defense secretary wanted to rethink 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. Milley, who has a background as a Special Operations soldier, was seen as the kind of officer who could produce a more unconventional and unorthodox approach, officials said.
Milley also dedicated time to making sure that the U.S. military understood the risks and was prepared for a possible conflict with North Korea. Inside the Pentagon, he warned that any conflict with Pyongyang would lead to massive loss of life and catastrophic damage. At the same time, he pushed the Pentagon to rethink how such a war might be fought and to improve the readiness of the entire joint force to carry out an attack on North Korea if ordered, said a senior Army official. Most of the Army's plans for a war on the peninsula were predicated on North Korean aggression rather than American offensive action to blunt a growing North Korean threat.
Milley is likely to elevate the public profile of the chairman. Dunford has maintained a low profile as the military's top officer that matches his circumspect personality. Milley, by contrast, is a voluble personality and natural story teller who could follow the path of Adm. Michael Mullen, a former chairman in the Obama administration. Concerned about the growing gulf between the military and the society it was sworn to defend, Mullen not only spoke on news shows, but also made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Milley's willingness to speak out has occasionally appeared to put him at odds with his commander in chief.
After Trump was criticized for appearing to condone some of the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in Aug. 2017, Milley tweeted that the Army “doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks,” seemingly distancing himself from Trump’s comments.