The office of Army Gen. Mark Milley, the military’s top officer, confirmed Wednesday that a series of meetings took place in the weeks surrounding the contentious 2020 election as described in a bombshell report from The Washington Post this week, but denied any inference that they amounted to an attempt to rein in the military control of an increasingly unwieldy commander in chief.
Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did indeed speak with his Chinese counterpart in October 2020, his office said in an emailed statement Wednesday afternoon. The Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa documented that interaction in an upcoming book, saying it came after the U.S. learned of Chinese intelligence assessments that then-President Donald Trump was preparing to launch an attack in the leadup to the election. Milley reportedly told his counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay, adding, We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you. Milley reportedly said he would warn Li about any upcoming attack.
The pair spoke again in January after a riotous mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election results, at which time the Post reported Milley’s telling Li, We are 100% steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.
Without describing the specific contents of the calls, Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for Milley, said in a statement the encounters were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regularly communicates with his foreign counterparts, Butler said, specifying China and Russia, and added the interactions remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict.
The Post story also reported that Milley convened a meeting of the top officials who oversee America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure and told them that he must be involved in any launch orders that came from the president – an apparent break from military norms allowing for the president alone to make such a decision (the legality of a president’s decision to order nuclear strikes is not clearly defined). Milley, who in his current position is not in the chain of command, reportedly asked for each attendee to affirm that they understood his instructions. Previous military leaders have made similar controversial moves during contentious political times, such as then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger when President Richard Nixon was facing impeachment. The military expects its officers not to allow for unlawful orders to take place.
Butler confirmed this meeting took place, again without providing details, and said it served
to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject.
General Milley frequently conducts meetings with uniformed leaders across the Services to ensure all leaders are aware of current issues, Butler said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during a press conference moments after Butler’s emailed statement that President Joe Biden has complete confidence in Milley’s leadership, his patriotism and his fidelity to our constitution.
She added that Milley won’t have to make special precautions to prevent the use of nuclear weapons because, unlike Trump, she said, Biden has no intention of fomenting unrest or insurrection.
The Post’s reporting, detailed in the upcoming book, Peril, represents only the latest of a series of incidents during and after the Trump administration in which Milley found himself in the middle of heated political controversy.
He, along with then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, accompanied the president in a photo op Trump orchestrated in the middle of violent social justice protests in the summer of 2020, drawing harsh criticism for apparently endorsing the move on behalf of the military. Both Milley and Esper later apologized for their presence, saying they didn’t know ahead of time what the president had planned.
U.S. News reported in January that Milley spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also days after the Jan. 6 riot, amid reporting at the time that the Pentagon and congressional leaders sought to strip the president of his most potent military powers amid the political fallout. Butler at the time described the call as Milley’s answering Pelosi’s questions, though the Post report this week indicates they both shared grave concerns about what Milley reportedly described as Trump’s apparent severe mental decline after the election.
And more recently, Milley stepped into the debate surrounding America’s reckoning with racist elements of its past. In a June congressional hearing he challenged Republican members on the dias for criticizing military courses at service academies and training schools studies on white rage and critical race theory – a previously obscure academic term that promotes the idea that racism is pervasive and baked into the foundation of the U.S. legal system and society as a whole. It has found popularity among Republicans looking to politicize it – prompting widespread blowback against the idea from far-right Republican circles.
In a statement late Tuesday, Trump piled on to the latest criticism while also claiming the reporting on which the claims were made amounted to fake news. He called Milley a dumbass and added, I assume he would be tried for TREASON, if the Post’s accounting turned out to be true.
He dismissed the account as Fake News concocted by a weak and ineffective General together with two authors who I refused to give an interview to because they write fiction, not fact, adding, For the record, I never even thought of attacking China — and China knows that. The people that fabricated the story are sick and demented, and the people who print it are just as bad.
In fact, I’m the only President in decades who didn’t get the U.S. into a war — a well known fact that is seldom reported, Trump concluded.