The top US military officer has defended phone calls he made to his Chinese counterpart in the turbulent final months of Donald Trump’s presidency. The conversations, he said, were intended to convey “reassurance” to the Chinese military and were in line with his responsibilities as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Some in Congress accused General Mark Milley of having overstepped his authority and urged President Joe Biden to fire him. Biden has indicated he stands behind Milley.
“I have great confidence in General Milley,” Biden said when asked if Milley had done the right thing.
Milley’s spokesman, Colonel Dave Butler, said Milley acted within his authority as the most senior uniformed adviser to the president and to the secretary of defence.
“His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance to maintain strategic stability,” Butler said. “All calls from the chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defence and the interagency.”
The Milley phone calls were described in excerpts from the forthcoming book Peril by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. The book says Milley told General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army that he would warn his counterpart in the event of a US attack.
Milley was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2019 by Trump and kept on by Biden. Milley does not command troops but is an adviser to the president and to the secretary of defence.
The book by Woodward and Costa reported that Milley, fearful of Trump’s actions in his final weeks as president, twice called his Chinese counterpart to assure him that the United States was not going to attack China.
One call was on October 30, 2020, four days before the election that Trump lost. The second call was on January 8, 2021, less than two weeks before Biden’s inauguration and just two days after the insurrection at the US Capitol by supporters of Trump.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the book. Details from the book, which is set to be released next week, were first reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday.
Trump said Milley should be tried for treason if it was true that Milley had promised Li that he would warn him if the US attacked.
“General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley told him in the first call, according to the book. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.
“If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise,” Milley reportedly said.
Milley’s spokesman did not directly address this aspect of the call but said Milley regularly communicates with his counterparts across the globe, including in China and Russia, to reduce tensions, provide clarity and avoid “unintended consequences or conflict”.
Milley spoke with a number of other military leaders around the world after the January 6 riot, including from the United Kingdom, Russia and Pakistan. A readout of those calls in January referred to “several” other counterparts that he spoke to with similar messages of reassurance that the US government was strong and in control.
The second call was meant to placate Chinese fears about the events of January 6. But the book reports that Li wasn’t as easily assuaged, even after Milley promised him: “We are 100 per cent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Trump responded Tuesday with a sharply worded statement dismissing Milley as a “Dumbass”, and insisting he never considered attacking China.
Still, he said that if the report was true, “I assume he would be tried for TREASON in that he would have been dealing with his Chinese counterpart behind the President’s back and telling China that he would be giving them notification ‘of an attack’. Can’t do that!
Actions should be taken immediately against Milley,” Trump said.
Milley believed the president suffered a mental decline after the election, agreeing with a view shared by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a phone call they had January 8, according to officials. Milley also asked senior officers to swear an “oath” that Milley had to be involved if Trump gave an order to launch nuclear weapons, according to the book.
Milley’s spokesman said Milley had conferred with the senior officers about nuclear weapons protocols “to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject”.
Butler, the spokesman, appeared to be referring to news reports of the January 8 Milley-Pelosi phone call. Butler did not address whether Milley had insisted he be part of the nuclear weapons procedures.
Pelosi had previously said she spoke to Milley that day about “available precautions” to prevent Trump from initiating military action or ordering a nuclear launch, and she told colleagues she was given unspecified assurances that longstanding safeguards were in place.
Milley, according to the book, called the admiral overseeing the US Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing upcoming military exercises.
It’s not clear what, if any, military exercises were actually postponed. But defence officials said it is more likely that the military postponed a planned operation, such as a freedom of navigation transit by a US Navy ship in the Pacific region. The defence officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
In response to the book, Senator Marco Rubio urged Biden to fire Milley, saying the general worked to “actively undermine the sitting Commander in Chief”.
Senator Ted Cruz called the report “deeply concerning”, telling reporters at the Capitol: “I think the first step is for General Milley to answer the question as to what exactly he said”.
Senator Dick Durbin said he had no concerns that Milley might have exceeded his authority, telling reporters that Democratic lawmakers “were circumspect in our language but many of us made it clear that we were counting on him to avoid the disaster which we knew could happen at any moment”.
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