Assuming the published excerpts of the forthcoming book “Peril” by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa are true, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should resign or be fired.
According to the book, Milley had two phone conversations with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army just before the 2020 election and just after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to assure Li that the U.S. was stable and that no aggressive actions against China were planned. Intelligence reports suggested the Chinese were concerned that the Trump administration was considering launching a surprise attack on China.
The most incendiary claim is that Milley was so concerned about President Donald Trump’s mental state that he took it upon himself to personally pledge that he would warn China if an attack was in the works: “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
Rather than being the action of a rogue general, Woodward and Costa say Milley was working under the direction of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was third in line of succession after Vice President Mike Pence. Pelosi was described as being convinced that Trump was a madman and was quite capable of ordering a nuclear strike in a fit of pique. Nevertheless, the Speaker has no military command authority of her own.
While the book’s authors seem to be striving to develop the narrative mythology that Trump was deranged in the closing weeks of his administration, there is no evidence he sought to lash out militarily at China or any other foreign nation. Regardless of the president’s actual state of mind, there are mechanisms constraining his actions and even for removing him from office.
In 1974, then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger reportedly asked top military officials to check with him before taking any orders from President Richard Nixon, who was at the time embroiled in the Watergate scandal and facing impeachment. This was a case of a civilian official in the administration with the defense portfolio exercising his authority in a time of crisis.
But Milley’s calls to the Chinese military are of a completely different nature. The notion that a U.S. general—and the top one at that—would collude with a foreign power and potential adversary behind the backs of the civilian command authority is staggering.
The book excerpts also convey that Milley sought to reassure China by postponing a naval exercise in the region. In addition, he reportedly assembled his top officers to review the procedures for using nuclear weapons. These actions are within his purview as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and, while they display a lack of loyalty to the president, are not especially problematic.
The appropriate course of action for Milley to follow if he lacked confidence in Trump would have been to resign and take his concerns to his civilian superiors. But he seems to want to keep his job, and President Biden continues to support him.
The Pentagon has tried to frame Milley’s phone calls to his Chinese counterpart as routine and stabilizing. However, there is nothing routine about promising to inform a potential rival nation of an impending U.S. attack. It is beyond the pale. In fact, the Chinese general must have been anything but assured by America’s top general promising to undermine his own national leadership.
The sharpest criticisms of Milley’s contacts with the Chinese are only valid if the reporting by The Washington Post writers turns out to be accurate. Admittedly, that may be a big “if.”
Thin Red Line
In a Sept. 15 appearance on Fox News, retired Gen. Jack Keane said characterizations of Milley’s conversations with Chinese military officials as reported by Woodward and Costa are being “sensationalized” and taken “out of context.” Citing the reporting of Fox’s Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin and his own sources, Keane said the contacts appear to have been handled appropriately, with staff preparation and participation and with input from Department of Defense civilian leaders.
Additionally, Axios reports that then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had indeed ordered that “backchannel” contacts be opened with Chinese officials in October to assure them that no U.S. attack was forthcoming, whatever their own intelligence might be warning them about. In this context, Milley’s Oct. 30 conversation could be seen as a follow-up.
Possibly complicating matters is the fact that Esper stepped down from his post on Nov. 9 and was replaced by Christopher Miller, who served as acting defense secretary through the remainder of Trump’s term. Miller has said he had no knowledge of Milley’s contacts with Chinese officials and did not authorize the call of Jan. 8. Of course, Milley might have felt that his authorization for backchannel contacts with his counterpart in China was still in effect.
Ultimately, Milley will have to address these questions himself. He is currently slated to appear, along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28 to discuss the Biden administration’s performance in the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Milley’s phone calls with his Chinese counterpart will certainly be on the agenda. While he has been loath to comment on political books, he decided to say something in the face of calls for his removal or even arrest on charges of treason. On Sept. 17, Milley said that his calls to China were perfectly fine.
Republicans have been calling for Milley’s head since the bungled Afghanistan exit and, with the new allegations, many are now baying even louder. Meanwhile, the new book is due out tomorrow—just in time for Senate staffers to digest it before Milley testifies. But unless Woodward and Costa’s narrative that Milley evaded civilian control can be shown to be largely accurate—with, say, supporting documentary evidence—the general is going to be difficult to depose, at least as long as Biden supports him.
Odds are, Milley’s actions with regard to contacting China are not going to be judged treasonous. There is too much bureaucracy built into such contacts for them to be in any way secret or rogue. Nevertheless, he is a poor choice for chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He is a political general. His favoritism for Democratic leaders essentially disqualifies him, as would be the case if he overtly favored GOP leaders. Over and above any collusion with China, this exchange with Pelosi after the Jan. 6 riot, quoted from The Washington Post, damns him most of all:
“What precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?”
Milley assured her that there were “a lot of checks in the system.”
The call transcript obtained by the authors shows Pelosi telling Milley, referring to Trump, “He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. … He’s crazy and what he did yesterday is further evidence of his craziness.”
Milley replied, “I agree with you on everything.”
The Joint Chiefs exist to provide the president with military advice and to ensure that the nation is prepared for war with any conceivable adversary. The president himself is not an adversary. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs does not answer to the Speaker of the House. Even if every word of Milley’s exchange with the Chinese is proven to be completely legal and justified in the service of maintaining strategic stability, he needs to go.
If Milley really thought that the president was crazy, he should have informed Congress, the acting secretary of defense, and Pence. If he did not really think the president was crazy and was merely currying favor with someone who could help him keep his job with the change of administrations, then he is a self-serving political hack and should be fired. Either way, he should not have a seat at the table.
Milley’s deference to Biden on the methodology of the Afghanistan pullout—he has lauded the president as a seasoned Washington veteran with over 50 years of experience—shows the general has no facility for handling real strategic stability issues. Nor does he appear to be willing to stand up to bad ideas from politicians he thinks he needs to keep his job. He defaults to the Washington establishment at the cost of U.S. interests. His interest in military affairs seems more consumed with the perceived need to root out “white rage” in the U.S. military than preparing to fight a possible existential conflict with the likes of China or Russia.
Even popular generals who win battles can be replaced when they get too big for their well-creased uniform trousers. President Harry Truman famously removed Gen. Douglas MacArthur when the latter threatened to expand the Korean War more to his liking. Biden probably won’t remove a political functionary like Milley, but he should.