Ret. Admiral Mike Mullen: “I Cannot Remain Silent”

In a stunning rebuke of the elected commander in chief, several generals – from James Mattis to John Kelly – have taken a stance against the president’s handling of this crisis. But it was retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chair of the joint chiefs of staff, who started this public conversation with an article titled “I Cannot Remain Silent.” He tells Walter why he felt compelled to speak out.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: So, what about the Republican Party and even nonpolitical national institutions like the military? In a stunning rebuke of the elected commander in chief, as we know, several generals, from former Secretary of Defense James Mattis to ex-Chief of Staff John Kelly, have taken a stance against how the president has been handling this crisis. But it was our next guest, Retired Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who started this public conversation with an article titled, “I Cannot Remain Silent.” And now he tells Walter Isaacson why.

WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And, Admiral Mike Mullen, welcome to the show.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN (RET.), FORMER JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Walter. It’s good to be with you.

ISAACSON: When you watched the video and saw what happened in Washington, D.C., when U.S. troops were clearing that space in front of the White House, what did you think?

MULLEN: Well, I was stunned, like many people. And it was hard for me to find words at that moment to really accurately state how I felt. It was — when I was very young, my last year at Annapolis, I literally was dating my wife, Deborah, not my wife at the time, but we were in the spring of ’68. Martin Luther King was killed in April. And Bobby Kennedy was killed the day I graduated. In that April time frame, we were going out. She was locked down in the streets of D.C. The National Guard was deployed. Tanks were in the street. The town was burning. And that’s one of the things that immediately flashed back in my head. And then to fast-forward, obviously, to last Monday, we were borderline on using active-duty troops, treating our own people as the enemy, and that’s what — that’s what really tripped it for me in terms of coming out publicly. But I actually thought that we were getting to a point where the country was in jeopardy, which is why I spoke.

ISAACSON: Last week, we saw an officers’ revolt. You were among the first, but there was General Mattis, General Kelly, Admiral McRaven, General Colin Powell, General Martin Dempsey, who is another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, like you are, General Michael Hayden, and now even today General Petraeus. Is there any precedent for this?

MULLEN: Certainly not in recent times that I’m aware of. There have been other times when they have been — I guess they have been characterized as the revolt of the generals, or the revolt of the admirals. I know Admiral Burke in the mid-’50s led what was described that way, but certainly not in my time that I’m aware of. The country’s got huge challenges. COVID has exposed a lot of that. The issue of racism, the disproportionate impact of COVID on the African- American — minority communities and the African-American community in particular. The disproportionate treatment or ability to get decent health care, and, obviously, the incredible display, the unbelievable display of a black man being murdered in front of our eyes, which speaks to the whole issue of the police behavior, brutality, and that that’s got to stop. There’s a lot going on right now, which we need to address as a country. And this moment speaks to a lot of that. Certainly, involving the military in this as well is yet again another step and potentially politicizing the military is really, in the end, why I spoke up.

ISAACSON: But this revolt of the four-star officers, is that appropriate? I mean, aren’t military leaders supposed to be subject to civilian command and the commander the commander in chief?

MULLEN: Yes, it’s a great question, Walt, and it is one that has concerned me for a long time. I mean, part of the challenge I had personally was, I had spoken against retired military types who had spoken out. Sort of the marker for me was the Iraq War. And it’s seemingly just grown ever since that time. So, I’m mindful of that. I’m very guarded about that. And it’s why I haven’t said anything up unto this point. And I have got military — senior military retireds, including when I was on active-duty, speaking against this, who point out they’re citizens of the United States. And I think that clearly is true. And as — I never questioned that. That said, it is the fact that we are military or were military members that gets focused on. And it gets to the — it gets to the point of your question, which is, the military is — the active-duty military works for the president of the United States. The active-duty military doesn’t vote on policy. It votes — it basically gets told, here’s what we’re going to do, and it carries out lawful orders. And somebody that’s in a very, very tough spot right now as General Milley, the current chairman, because he’s the one that has to do that, give his advice in private and carry out what the president decides. And I’m sympathetic to that, because I had that job. Only, his job is probably more difficult than anybody’s so far, save his predecessor, General Joe Dunford, who also worked for President Trump.

ISAACSON: This revolt of the officers, will it matter?

MULLEN: I think I can ask that question or I would ask that question about, will this time matter? I think it would be very sad if everything that has gone on in recent weeks doesn’t matter. And by matter, I mean essentially move forward on constructive change on all of these major issues. I think the answer to whether it matters or not for the military is whether the military is able to keep itself out of the politics, stays out of the politics, in which case this could — this participation by these — by myself and others could be said to have made a difference.

ISAACSON: Do you think President Trump is listening, and it will have an impact on him?

MULLEN: Whether or not the president’s listening, I’m not sure. I think, in the totality, if you see — if you measure whether he’s listening by certainly what he tweeted out against Colin Powell, as an example, in totality, I think it’s being heard. Whether it will make a difference, I’m just not sure. I think, more than anything else, what he — and the country in ways, but he in particular is tuning into what’s required to get reelected in November. And so whether this makes a difference in that regard, I’m just not sure.

ISAACSON: In “The Atlantic,” in your op-ed, you wrote this week: “He laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protests in this country. He gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife. And he risks further politicizing the men and women of the armed forces.” That’s pretty tough. What were you trying to accomplish? Why did you write that?

MULLEN: Because I believed it, first of all. And I think that, certainly, feedback — the feedback I have gotten over many, many months now from my friends who are — live overseas — these are countries that have been friends of ours for a long time — asking questions about who we are and what we stand for, and will we be there for them? This is right at the heart of where we are as a country, whether we like it or not. I have felt for a long time, I think the more we isolate, the more likely it is that we will get into some kind of conflict overseas. And what’s happened in this chaos that we exist in right now is the opportunity for particularly the Chinese and the Russians to take advantage of the — what we’re going through specifically, and very much focused on the — what I think the president’s reaction is very much focused on the constitutional right of protest, in a way. And, clearly, there are bad guys and gals associated with that. And they need to be ferreted out. But the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful protesters. So, fundamentally, fundamentally attacking our constitutional rights as well, and doing in front of the world, you have seen the reaction around the world, quite frankly, in support of these protests. So, the giving succor piece is just, quite frankly, feeding it right to Xi Jinping, right to Putin, right to Kim Jong-un, who don’t support any kind of the democracy that we believe in, and taking advantage of that. The change in this country has most often occurred because there’s been the peaceful protests which have stood tall in the face of the kinds of difficulties we’re having and the change that needs to be made.

ISAACSON: In your piece that you wrote, you said also: “I remain confident in the professionalism of the men and women in uniform, but I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by their commander in chief.” What should they do if they feel they have been given an unsound order by their commander in chief?

MULLEN: The leadership has to step up. I mean, that’s obviously the purview of General Milley, but also all of the senior officers. And we all serve when we’re on active duty to carry out lawful orders. I believe the leadership needs to think through what the possibilities might be and what they might do in advance. It’s very difficult to say no in the heat of the moment, if you will, when you’re dealing with the president. So, they — the troops are represented by this leadership and must be led by them. And, obviously, I wouldn’t get to any hypotheticals, per se, but they must be mindful of sort of the boundary conditions under which they will continue to serve, the leaders, will continue to serve.

ISAACSON: Did they make a mistake when it came to clearing the square in front of the White House?

MULLEN: Wow, that was illegal. The National Guard obviously was involved in that. And they were carrying out — they were carrying out lawful orders. I thought — I did not — my observation of it and the reporting of it that confirms that they were peaceful. And I think using force against peaceful protesters is a mistake, absolutely.

ISAACSON: Do you think our domestic police departments, our urban police departments, have become too militarized and that we have sent them too much military equipment, and we have made that sort of part of a military feel to our civil society?

MULLEN: I think, in the evaluation, there’s a real opportunity here — in the evaluation of the injustice, if you will, and the police brutality, which is front and center in all this. We have a real opportunity to answer that question. I have a tremendous admiration for police men and women across our country. They’re very difficult jobs. We put them into incredibly difficult situations, life-and- death situations. And we have — one is too many, but we have far too many police men and women who are killed every year in the line of duty. We have to protect them in that regard. What’s the right balance? The whole issue now of — quote, unquote — “defunding” the police department, I think giving — providing the right security for our people, in neighbors, mayors, governors, et cetera, is absolutely critical, How do we answer their needs? And the totality of understanding that and executing it is really key. It’s — visibly, clearly, the police departments across the country, have much more capable — kind of what I would call combat-capable gear than they used to have. We need to get that right. And we need to use it right, not overuse it, specifically.

ISAACSON: You have spoken this week to a lot of black members of our military. What are they telling you?

MULLEN: Well, I’m not sure I’d characterize it as a lot. But I certainly have heard from some. They are — they are worried about — and we have made a lot of progress since the ’60s, if you will, in integrating the military, since the ’40s, actually, when President Truman signed the order to integrate the military. But we’re not perfect, and we still have a long way to go. One of the comments that I made publicly over the weekend was that we still don’t have enough black four-stars. And one of the metrics in my life dealing with minorities is: I look up the chain of command, I don’t see anybody that looks like me. It’s true for women. It’s true for minorities. And while we have made a lot of progress, we have still got a ways to go, particularly at that black four-star level. It doesn’t mean we don’t have them or haven’t had them, but we don’t — we don’t seemingly are — able to generate opportunities for minority officers and women at the four-star level. And I think we need to do that. So, we have — still have to address issues internally to the military. I think our forces notionally, 20, 25 percent — or 20 percent African-Americans, and we have to be representative. I felt one of the reasons it’s such an important focus for our military is, we must be representative of our country. Demographically, we need to represent the country. And if we’re just run by largely white men, over time, we will continue to drift away from our country as a military. And that’s bad from a democratic — for a Democratic society.

ISAACSON: And what needs to happen now for our society, for our body politic, for our military?

MULLEN: I think we need concerned leaders from every dimension of the problem, if you will, so all ethnicities, all genders, and actually all generations. One of the things that strikes me about these protests is how many young people are out from all generations. And those young people, while not in positions of power right now, one, they will be, and two, their message is a really strong message. And we need to bring together representation from all of those and, probably more than anything else in this country, listen to each other, stop speaking and listen to why they feel this way. What do they think we should do to take steps to make it better, what has to happen, and bring that message, in the end, bring that message to Washington, across all these things, certainly the racial injustice, the police brutality, the incarceration level, the health care system, the education system, the income inequality. The American dream is disappearing, or has disappeared for too many of our people. So, leaders have to — internally to our country, we have to address this. And, if we don’t, it will just continue to erode. And we have always been a country that has responded to a crisis. It almost takes a crisis to make the kind of change we need to make. If this isn’t the crisis, where we have lost now more people to COVID in three months than we lost in World War I, we have lost 25 percent of the people, numbers wise, that we lost in World War II. If this isn’t a crisis, I don’t know what is wrong.

ISAACSON: Admiral Mike Mullen, thank you so much for joining us this evening.

MULLEN: Thanks, Walt. It’s good to see you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Veteran civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry joins Christiane Amanpour to discuss the work that lies ahead for the Black Lives Matter movement. Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts, discusses the 2020 election, police reform and racism in the U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen joins Walter Isaacson to discuss his op-ed for The Atlantic entitled “I Cannot Remain Silent.”