It takes a pine tree about 30 years to grow from seed to maturity. A single mature pine can be processed into up to 20,000 sheets of paper, which can be used to make books, newspapers, and magazines printed with all manner of literature. The tree has no control over what kind; one pine might be turned into, say, a marked-up keepsake copy of Middlemarch, and another tree just like it could be turned into the ghostwritten memoir of a girl power lifestyle influencer that will serve as a White Claw coaster until the dog chews it up.
But few paper tree fates are as undignified as that which awaits those that hit printing presses at the same time that a former Trump sycophant is launching a rehab tour. Imagine being a tree your whole life, and then having your afterlife devoted to insisting that some former government official’s tepid imaginary resistance to President Trump was actually a form of bravery that saved America. The indignity. Maybe that’s what happens to the bad trees.
The latest Trump contemporary on a mission to inform America that he is the real hero of the Trump era is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, a regular Big Bad John down in the mine holding up the joists so all of the miners can run out, at least as people familiar with his thinking put it. You may remember General Milley from that photo taken the day that President Trump had law enforcement use tear gas to clear protesters from Lafayette Square, so that the president could pose next to a church and hold a Bible aloft like it was a fish he’d caught on vacation. Milley was with him that day, dressed like a GI Joe side character and wearing a face so self-serious it made him appear to be suffering from constipation.
Several days later, after the public had the opportunity to get good and mad about it, Milley acknowledged that the whole affair was indeed full of shit. He apologized for his involvement in the photo op.
Now, a new round of reporting is depicting Milley—who clearly sourced this reporting—as more than a contrite public official who feels bad he let President Trump use him that one time. He was actually the guy responsible for making sure that Donald Trump didn’t turn into Adolf Hitler! You’re welcome, America!
This has led to a wave of embarrassing depictions of Milley as a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” figure and an “American hero” instead of what he is, a “guy who now wants us to believe that he’s the reason that things weren’t worse.” But why should we believe him?
According to recent reporting about Milley, the general spent the months after the June photo op attempting to do penance for his mistake by fighting “from the inside.” That inside fighting involved a lot of grumbling to other staffers, planning to resign in protest if things got to a point they never got to, making moral proclamations about his principles to those close to him and scheduling phone calls with other people to relay these anxieties. The magazine article implies that Trump was seriously considering going to war with Iran in order to solidify his power after losing the election while Milley raced to stop him, but the president must not have been that serious, as one of the articles praising his general as some kind of behind-the-scenes hero reports that Donald was talked out of that plan over the course of a single meeting. (During that same meeting, Milley heard Trump boast that the Jan. 6 “rally” of his supporters in D.C. would be “wild.” Milley did nothing except see a version of his fears play out, which isn’t the same as doing something.)
While he’s leaking now, Milley’s supposed courage while Trump was president did not involve speaking publicly or even getting stories to the press when that might have mattered about behind-the-scenes warmongering, which, given Trump’s tendency to pay more attention to press coverage than to security briefings, would have probably been a more effective way to blow that plan up.
Further, Milley and other publicity-seeking former Trump associates’ alleged fights “from the inside” did not reflect any understanding of Trump’s real power—which wasn’t the former president’s ability to manipulate the government, but rather his cult leader-like ability to manipulate his frothing followers into doing just about anything. The people holding up misspelled racial slurs at Trump rallies aren’t reading strongly worded memos published in the Washington Post.
Of course, it’s better for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and other powerful figures to acknowledge that Trump is and was dangerous than for them to continue licking his boots. But their convenient Monday morning bravery isn’t sending the message they think it is. An announcement, six months after somebody is no longer the president, that there was a plan in place to take action that was never actually taken does not convince me that the person who supposedly made the plan is brave.
I’m no more impressed with a military official saying, “I had a feeling something this bad would happen, but I didn’t effectively do anything to prevent it” as I would be if my husband informed Carol Leonnig six months after forgetting my birthday that he had intended to take me out to dinner at the time, to a dinner that could possibly have been the best of my life. Who cares? A firefighter who thought about saving the cat from the tree but didn’t actually get around to it isn’t a quiet hero. All of these too-late-to-do-anything declarations of principle are less than worthless.
We’ve been through so many rounds of rehabilitative Trump official fan fiction that it is its own genre at this point. Do writers depicting those who were complicit as secret heroes think their spin is believable? It wasn’t believable when it was the Actually Don McGahn’s Secret Bravery Saved America news cycle, the Anonymous Miles Taylor The Quiet Hero cycle, several cycles of Ivanka and Jared Are Privately Urging The President To Be Less Bad, a round of John Kelly Always Hated The Guy, a hearty dose of Lt. General McMaster Pounds The Table And Yells “Sir!” Possibly Loudly Enough To Save the Republic, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis Has Some Tough Talk After The Fact, Bill Barr Was Actually Secretly Doing Smart Things, or the Mike Pompeo Was Tough And Presidential this Whole Time cycle. (Coming soon! Kellyanne Conway pretends that she didn’t spend the last six years blabbing to journalists from the Times on down as she promotes her “tell-all.”)
In a time when talk is cheap but self-aggrandizing exaggeration can fetch you a seven-figure book advance, every piece of historical revisionism that makes anybody look suddenly good should be taken with a grain of salt or, better yet, simply ignored.