It took no time at all for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to respond to serious allegations made in a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Given the circumstances, a swift explanation was certainly called for. But did the general’s spokesman, Colonel David Butler, sufficiently address the concerns of members of Congress and the American people?
In a September 15 statement, Butler did manage to pour a certain amount of cold water on Woodward’s incendiary description of Milley’s allegedly deliberate attempts to usurp then-President Donald Trump’s powers as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. However, he did not directly address the most concerning aspect of a telephone conversation between the president’s senior military advisor and Gen. Li Zuocheng of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
Explaining the Phone Calls
In his book, Woodward alleges Milley spoke with Li by telephone in October of 2020 and then again in early January 2021. Of course, high level contacts between military commanders from different countries – even adversaries – are not uncommon. As Butler pointed out:
“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia. These conversations remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict.”
The general’s spokesman went on to describe how such calls are carefully coordinated. Fox News, citing unnamed sources, reports that around 15 people were present for the calls between Li and Milley, including some who were there to take notes. “This was not done like some sort of conspiratorial thing,” one of those present told Fox.
Christopher Miller, who was acting secretary of defense from just after the November 2020 election through Inauguration Day, has insisted he “did not and would not ever authorize” Milley to make “secret” calls to his Chinese counterpart. While Miller acknowledged that he was aware of a call between Milley and Li, he says he was not thoroughly informed about the matters discussed. While calling for the general’s resignation, he described the allegations as a “disgraceful and unprecedented act of insubordination.”
It remains unclear, though, whether Milley pledged to warn Gen. Li in advance of any U.S. military attack. Woodward claims the general did so, telling Lee, “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.” According to the anti-Trump journalist and author, Milley was concerned the president might order an attack on China. The general himself contends he was acting on intelligence reports suggesting China feared such an attack.
Traditionally throughout history, countries have threatened their adversaries with war if certain actions are not taken or certain agreements are not met. That is all the advance notice a country gets. For a senior military commander to directly warn an adversary of impending military attack is unheard of and would be incredibly irresponsible – not to mention treasonous.
There could be no justification for conspiring with the enemy against one’s own country. Even if, as the book’s author describes, Milley feared Trump was becoming unhinged, the general would have been way off base running to the Chinese with reckless promises. The 25th Amendment is there for just such a situation. It is unlikely the general had any such fears; Woodward’s fevered imagination is almost certainly working overtime.
An Unlikely Story
It doesn’t appear too many people are buying Woodward’s story. Former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell dismissed the claim in a tweet, observing, “Trump isn’t a war starter and I don’t believe Milley thought he was.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R) told Fox News: “This book raises some serious concerns and I would say some of the allegations seem somewhat far-fetched to me.” Sen. Cotton warned that nobody should be jumping to conclusions and added:
“The idea that an American military general is going to warn an adversary that an attack is coming … when Donald Trump was never even thinking about a military attack against China. The whole thing is pretty far fetched.”
On Sept. 28, Gen. Milley will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Will he clarify what was said between himself and the Chinese general and, more importantly, why it was said? Or will he fall back on his SERE training (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) and leave both the American people and Congress in the dark?
Did Pelosi Flirt With Sedition?
Aside from the much talked about calls between Milley and Li, there remains the equally serious matter of the conversation Woodward claims took place between the Joint Chiefs chairman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). By the author’s account, Pelosi appeared to suggest to Milley that the sitting president should not be trusted with launch codes for America’s nuclear arsenal.
While the president has the ability to launch a nuclear strike, he does not and cannot do so unilaterally. He doesn’t just punch some numbers on a keypad and hit a big red button – as Pelosi is no doubt aware. There is a multi-layered procedure of checks and balances involved in launching a nuclear attack. Nevertheless, if Woodward’s claim is accurate, the speaker in her call with Milley implies Trump should be removed from the decision-making process. “What I’m saying to you,” she allegedly told the general, “is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do? And is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”
Milley apparently reassured Pelosi that the nuclear weapons were perfectly safe. But unless Woodward has misrepresented the contents of this call, the Democrat leader was speaking way out of turn by injecting herself into executive branch matters. Without an enormous stretch of the imagination, one could almost believe Pelosi was subtly – or not so subtly – hinting that Milley himself should deny the president the authority that comes with his office. If so, she was wading into sedition or coup territory. There is no word yet from House Republicans on whether they will demand the speaker explain herself.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.