When President Donald Trump fired former Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday, he chose to replace him with someone from outside the Pentagon, rather than elevate Esper’s deputy to the acting SECDEF role.
He chose Chris Miller, a retired Special Forces colonel who had been serving as the National Counterterrorism Center’s director. His resume includes a stint as the assistant defense secretary for special operations/low intensity conflict, as well as a battalion command back at 5th Special Forces Group, during the early days of the war in Afghanistan.
“He’s somebody everybody’s surprised about, except those who knew his name,” one of his former soldiers, retired Special Forces Master Sgt. Scott Neil, told Military Times on Tuesday.
Miller arrived at the building Monday afternoon with one aide at his side, in an entrance so low-key and unassuming ― save for the trip up the first step and a joke about breaking his ankle ― that the public affairs staffer setting up the velvet rope outside didn’t even realize it had happened.
“Why does nobody know a lot about Chris Miller? Is that a bad thing?” Neil said. “And it’s because he was always a professional in what he was doing. He was never a personality in a position.”
Neil described him as the prototypical “quiet professional” Green Beret, with a calm presence and humble leadership style.
“He listens to others very well, but he’s always very bright and gifted when it comes to, kind of, building consensus and momentum,” Neil said.
According to Miller’s official bio, he enlisted in the Army Reserve as an infantryman in 1983. Ten years later, he transferred to Special Forces, where he served as a detachment, company and battalion commander with 5th Group at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
“He’s not a personality that dominates,” said Neil, who along with Miller was one of the first troops on the ground in Afghanistan in October 2001. “He’s somebody that has always been able to get things done, but quietly.”
Miller was serving in 5th Group when two teams landed in Afghanistan to link up with local anti-Taliban forces, fighting until the Taliban surrendered in early December.
"When we set out on this journey as a country, we envisioned our campaign against violent extremist organizations as a ‘generational war,’ not a ‘multi-generational war,’ " Miller told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in his prepared remarks for his NCTC confirmation hearing in July.
Questions quickly arose Monday about how Miller would manage his relationship with Trump, who has clashed both publicly and privately with two of his previous defense secretaries. Counting the temporary “acting” stints in between confirmations, there have been five.
One of the president’s top priorities throughout his administration, but particularly in the run-up to the 2020 election, has been the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan after 19 years of back-to-back deployments.
“It would be, in my view, the height of irresponsibility to leave this conflict for our children to fight,” Miller told senators of his feelings about prolonging the war.
The Trump administration this year forged ahead with a plan that would draw down troop levels from about 8,500 to 4,000 this month.
In the weeks before the election, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien insisted that number would come down again, to 2,500, early next year. Trump followed that statement up by tweeting that remaining troops “should” be home by Christmas.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that knows more about these situations than Chris,” Neil said. “Chris has been involved since the very first troops into Afghanistan, so he is the one to give the president the best counsel.”
Miller’s predecessor found himself trying to maneuver around the president’s ambitious Afghanistan timeline, urging over and over that withdrawing below 4,000 troops would be based on conditions set out by ongoing peace talks between the U.S. government and the Taliban, as well as the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Esper’s strategy had been to take the White House’s ideas and try to finesse them into something that made sense for both national security and relationships with allies and partners.
“Imagine this: ‘Disregard what the president said. This is still the plan,’” Esper suggested in a Nov. 4 interview with Military Times. “Now, if I were the president, I’d say, ‘Really? Here you go. Here’s a written piece of paper. You’re coming home by December.’”
Eyes will be on Miller to see how he navigates those waters, but they should not expect to see a performative “standing up” to Trump, according to another of Miller’s former colleagues.
“He may make decisions that other people disagree with. They have two options: they can do what he directs them to do, or after they’ve offered their advice, if they find it illegal, immoral, unethical, unadvisable, they can step down,” retired Col. Mark Mitchell, who most recently served in the Pentagon as the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations/low-intensity conflict.
Miller will be obligated to carry out the president’s orders, Mitchell said, but he also has a reputation for thinking outside the box
“He’s a brilliant mind and he is, as a Special Forces officer, he’s not afraid of unconventional solutions,” he said. “And the idea that, ‘Well this is the way we’ve always done it,’ won’t fly. He’s willing to challenge the conventional wisdom and the bureaucracy.”
Mitchell added that he resented the implication at the defense secretary should be expected to stand up to the president, or in his way, as the duly elected commander in chief.
“You either carry out your lawful orders or you resign,” he said. “We don’t get the option to ‘stand up to him.’ ”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper called Military Times for a lengthy discussion of his time in office.
The trend of senior administration leaders, like former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, trying to protect their organizations from the president, was ill-advised, he added.
“I think Kelly and Mattis and several others conspired to not do what the president asked them to do and should have resigned a lot sooner,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think anybody wants Cabinet officials defying the president.”
Post-election, the Trump administration and Pentagon are now in a gray area, where Trump has not conceded the election, as President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team gets working, and there’s an acting defense secretary who’s set to serve for at most 10 weeks.
So will he and the White House push to accelerate the drawdown in Afghanistan?
“I don’t think there’s anybody that knows more about these situations than Chris," Neil said. "Chris has been involved since the very first troops into Afghanistan, so he is the one to give the president the best council.”
Miller already has a good relationship with O’Brien, Mitchell said, which could help in working through a plan.
“Chris Miller is a dedicated public servant who will give his candid and well-informed views to the president,” he added.