Trump Elevating 3-Star Admiral to CNO

In a move sure to ruffle feathers, the President is bypassing all of the Navy's four-star admirals for the next service chief.

Earlier this week, Admiral Bill Moran, who had been confirmed by the Senate to be the next Chief of Naval Operations, suddenly resigned after what seems like a minor scandal. The President has nominated an unlikely successor.

A three-star surface warfare officer is set to be the Trump Administration’s nominee to lead the Navy, after the previous candidate unexpectedly asked to retire, USNI News has confirmed.

On Wednesday, the White House agreed to put forward Vice Adm. Mike Gilday to be the 32nd Chief of Naval Operations, reported The Wall Street Journal. USNI News has independently confirmed the facts in the story.
Gilday, currently the director of the Joint Staff, will replace Adm. Bill Moran as the nominee to replace outgoing CNO Adm. John Richardson, who is bound by law to step down from the position by Sept. 17.

By picking Gilday, the former commander of U.S. 10th Fleet and the Navy’s cyber arm, the administration is bypassing seven sitting four-star admirals in a move that is largely without recent precedent. The last time a three-star was nominated to lead the Navy was when then-Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt was nominated to be CNO in 1970.

A defense official knowledgeable with the selection process said Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer had considered nominating current U.S. Fleet Forces Command commander Adm. Christopher Grady as the CNO nominee but instead decided to pull a candidate from the three-star pool.

“There was a determination all of the four-stars needed to stay where they are right now,” a defense official told USNI News on Wednesday.


Gilday is a career surface warfare officer and 1985 U.S. Naval Academy graduate.

At sea, Gilday commanded guided-missile destroyers USS Higgins (DDG-76) and USS Benfold (DDG-65), Destroyer Squadron 7, and Carrier Strike Group 8 aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69).

As a flag officer, Gilday served as director of operations for NATO’s Joint Force Command Lisbon; as chief of staff for Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO; director of operations for U.S. Cyber Command; and in his current role as director of operations for the Joint Staff. He also previously served as the executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a naval aide to the White House.

—Sam LaGrone, USNI News, “Trump to Nominate Vice Adm. Mike Gilday to Lead Navy”

I don’t know Gilday by reputation but he’s certainly qualified to lead the Navy with such a rich array of assignments. Still, as LaGrone notes, it’s unprecedented in the modern era to fill the CNO spot with someone who hasn’t previously served in a four-star billet.

The closest recent precedent that comes to mind is the 2003 decision to install General Peter Schoomaker, who had retired three years earlier after serving as chief of US Special Operations Command, as Army Chief of Staff. No one had ever been recalled from the retired list for a service chief job before. There, it was rumored that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been unable to persuade two active four-star generals to take the post after his open feud with General Eric Shinseki.

I simply don’t have any inside information on which to speculate as to what the reasoning is here. The proferred explanation, that none of the four-stars could be spared from their current billet, is risible.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    At a quick glance, the man resembles Putin. Perhaps that’s your answer.

  2. Bill says:


    George Marshall IMHO is a better past example. At the time of his appointment to Chief of Staff of the Army, there were over 30 generals with more seniority than him though Marshall was a deputy chief of staff at the time.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if all the four stars refused the promotion. Why would they want to get a bunch of Trump stink on them?

    Of course, another possibility is that there is something wrong with Gilday. Maybe he’s a crazy Christian fundamentalist or a serial groper. That would make him Trump’s kind of guy.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Bill: That’s fair but I’m really thinking of the modern, all-volunteer era. Marshall’s Army was tiny and insular and he presumably had a superb reputation in Washington as a staff officer. Nowadays, it’s unusual, indeed, to elevate someone to service chief who hasn’t held a combatant command or a deputy chief role.

    @MarkedMan: Let’s hold off on assassinating the character of someone with decades of service based on sheer speculation.

  5. Jay L Gischer says:

    Well, let’s not underestimate Trump’s shallowness. It could be that Gilday looks the part (to Trump’s eye) more than any of the others. “Looks good on TV” is a prime consideration for him.

  6. Paul L. says:

    Checking his bio.
    U.S. Naval Academy graduate. Check.
    son of a Navy Sailor and a surface warfare officer. Fraternization?
    Submarine Qualified. Nope.
    Nuclear Trained. Nope.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    Hey, you disappeared without answering the question I put to you three times:

    What is the plausible and innocent explanation for why Trump refuses to have any other American present when he meets with Putin?

  8. Andy says:

    Not sure why the 4-stars were skipped, but I don’t think it’s much of a problem unless there’s something nefarious going on.

    It seems to me Gildray was probably selected because of his current position as director of operations for the Joint Staff. He obviously impressed someone and the promotion will provide some continuity for the position.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    Let’s hold off on assassinating the character of someone with decades of service based on sheer speculation.

    I should have been clearer. I know of no evidence, outside of Trump’s selecting him, to think that there is anything wrong with this candidate. He could absolutely have an stellar character. And if he had been put in place by literally any other administration in my lifetime that would be my default presumption. Even administrations I detested, like Bush/Cheney, showed they were unwilling to nominate bad people. (I mean morally bad here. I’m not qualified to determine their military competency but I never heard anything negative about that.)

    But this is exactly why I was speculating that it might have been the four stars choice to sit out. Just getting nominated by Trump calls your character into question. It’s not fair, but given the track record, it’s reality.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: He looks more like Ed O’Neil to me, which inspires even less confidence to my mind. Fortunately, we’re not likely to ever see him again until the obligatory resigning in disgrace event that seems to come with Trump noms.

  11. morinao says:

    I think it’s just an unusually weak field this time around.
    – Davidson (INDOPACOM) – tarnished by some tone-deaf testimony about the Navy’s response to the Fitzgerald/McCain collisions, which he oversaw (“Senator, you didn’t hear about all the ships that didn’t crash”).
    – Faller (SOUTHCOM) – Mattis’ senior military assistant, probably lost his sponsor when Mattis got fired the month after he was promoted to 4-star.
    – Caldwell (NNP) – halfway through Rickover’s old job, which is meant to last 8 years these days, his predecessor (Richardson) notwithstanding.
    – Foggo (NAVEUR) – maybe too old, he will be 60 in September and graduated from the Naval Academy the year before the current CNO.
    – Burke (VCNO) – only been 4-star for a month.
    So then you are left with Aquilino (PACFLT) and Grady (FLTFORCOM), who have only been 4-stars for a year, so a third-tour 3-star like Gilday might still look competitive with them. Moran himself was already a surprising choice, given his comparatively sparse sea record.

  12. Andy says:


    That makes sense to me – and Gilday’s current position is one that almost always leads to a fourth star, so he’s in the pipe for a promotion already.

  13. Paul L. says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Vlad brought Trump’s favorite hookers/concubines.
    I heard they now got one that looks like AOC.

  14. Kari Q says:

    In any other White House, I would think this was a decision based on sound reasoning and a thorough review of the candidates. There are many things that hint that there is something seriously wrong in the Navy right now and a new CNO would be a good move to try to figure out how to turn things around.

    But given that there is no Secretary of Defense or Deputy Secretary, I wonder who was around who knew the candidates well enough to make the choice. The Moran situation, for example, certainly sounds like a minor scandal and one that shouldn’t have led to his withdrawal, in a well run White House with a professional approach to personnel decisions that is. They would have known about this and been able to gauge its importance or lack of. Given this administration’s clumsy approach, who knows what the real story is.

    I certainly hope that Gilday is a good choice, because the Navy needs strong leadership right now, especially with increasing tensions with Iran.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    Your cowardice is noted.