Former President Trump’s violent rhetoric toward Gen. Mark Milley is raising fears he will use a second term in the Oval Office to seek retribution against his enemies.
Trump suggested Friday that Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is stepping down from his post at the end of the week, deserves the death penalty for allegedly betraying him and committing an act of treason.
The threat came just days after Milley warned that if Trump wins the presidency in 2024, he would enact vengeance against those he felt have done him wrong.
And Milley believes he is at the top of that revenge list.
“He’ll start throwing people in jail, and I’d be on the top of the list,” Milley told The Atlantic in a profile of the four-star general published last week.
Kristy Parker, a legal counsel at Protect Democracy who leads litigation on abuses of power and interference with government functions, said Trump’s comments about Milley are “deeply troubling” for American democracy.
“Even just the threats have an incredibly chilling effect on public actors’ ability to do the jobs we need them to do to have a functional democracy,” she said.
“Trump has shown and talked about weaponizing the Justice Department to retaliate against people who he perceives as his enemies and he did, in fact, do that to people when he was president the first time.”
The Trump-Milley feud has simmered for years, with the two clashing over the military’s role in the 2020 racial justice protests and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
But long after the administration ended, Milley remains at the top of Trump’s mind as books and articles have documented steps the general says he took to protect against Trump’s erratic behavior.
Last week’s death threat stems from reports that at the end of his presidency, Milley reassured Chinese officials there would be no threat to Beijing in the final days of Trump’s administration, according to the 2021 book “Peril” by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
The communication has long infuriated Trump, who took to Truth Social last week to condemn Milley’s years of service as “treasonous” ahead of his retirement from the Joint Chiefs later this week.
“[Milley] was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States,” he posted. “This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!”
Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations scholar who recently published a new book on public confidence in the military, said Trump is so enraged by Milley because of these public accounts portraying the general as a protector against his presidency.
Feaver said Trump’s quest to castigate Milley is also designed to warn other potential critics from speaking out. He said the strategy has damaged the civilian-military relationship and could backfire on Trump and his allies.
“Trump thinks he can just personalize this to Milley,” said Feaver. “But he’s failing to understand how this is going to be corrosive of civil-military relations more generally [because …] if they haven’t done something wrong and you’re punishing them, then you get a perverse civil-military relationship.”
The spat is the second time this year their feud has come into the spotlight. Trump has also lobbed accusations at Milley over Iran, disputing claims that the general moved to ensure he wouldn’t attack the country and arguing Milley was the one who recommended an attack.
But Milley is not the only one in Trump’s crosshairs: Former Attorney General Bill Barr and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper have also drawn his ire.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that Esper, Barr and Milley were all once “praised by Trump” but are “now all regularly attacked by Trump because they had the nerve to put the country ahead of him.”
“What kind of person threatens execution on a third-tier social media site? A sad and disturbed person who has no place being near the White House, let alone living inside it,” said Christie, a Republican presidential candidate challenging Trump.
Esper told CNN that Milley “deserves praise and thanks” and “does not deserve what he is receiving from President Trump right now.”
Referring to the China conflict, Esper said after the 2020 election, he told Chinese officials the U.S. was steady and directed Milley to send a similar message to his Chinese counterpart.
Esper said the way Milley’s main offense was offering “candid, frank advice” did not comport with Trump’s expectations.
“He wants to find ‘yes’ men in his office,” Esper said.
“The president has also said that a second term would be about retribution, right? So, I think these are all legitimate concerns,” he later added.
While experts agree Trump would have no case to prosecute Milley for treason, the death threats alone are already alarming advocacy groups.
Abe Bonowtiz, the founder of Death Penalty Action, an organization working to abolish the death penalty, said, “Trump has an unhealthy addiction for the dictatorial power to execute political rivals.”
“The death penalty is a very serious matter,” he said in a statement, “and it’s being tossed around as a political tool by Republican presidential candidates, which should concern everyone.”