Twice in the final months of the Trump administration, the country’s top military officer was so fearful that the president’s actions might spark a war with China that he moved urgently to avert armed conflict.
In a pair of secret phone calls, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, that the United States would not strike, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter Robert Costa.
One call took place on Oct. 30, 2020, four days before the election that unseated President Trump, and the other on Jan. 8, 2021, two days after the Capitol siege carried out by his supporters in a quest to cancel the vote.
The first call was prompted by Milley’s review of intelligence suggesting the Chinese believed the United States was preparing to attack. That belief, the authors write, was based on tensions over military exercises in the South China Sea, and deepened by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward China.
‘’General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be OK,’’ Milley told him. ‘’We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.’’
In the book’s telling, Milley went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a US attack, stressing the rapport they’d established through a backchannel. ‘’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.’’
Li took the chairman at his word, the authors write in the book, ‘’Peril,’’ which is set to be released next week.
In the second call, placed to address Chinese fears about the events of Jan. 6, Li wasn’t as easily assuaged, even after Milley promised him, ‘’We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.’’
Li remained rattled, and Milley, who did not relay the conversation to Trump, according to the book, understood why. The chairman, 62 at the time and chosen by Trump in 2018, believed the president had suffered a mental decline after the election, the authors write, a view he communicated to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat from California, in a phone call on Jan. 8. He agreed with her evaluation that Trump was unstable, according to a call transcript obtained by the authors.
Believing that China could lash out if it felt at risk from an unpredictable and vengeful American president, Milley took action. The same day, he called the admiral overseeing the US Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing the military exercises, according to the book. The admiral complied.
Milley also summoned senior officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons, saying the president alone could give the order — but, crucially, that he, Milley, also had to be involved. Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood, the authors write, in what he considered an ‘’oath.’’
The chairman knew that he was ‘’pulling a Schlesinger,’’ the authors write, resorting to measures resembling the ones taken in August 1974 by James Schlesinger, the secretary of defense at the time. Schlesinger told military officials to check with him and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs before carrying out orders from President Nixon, who was facing impeachment at the time.
Though Milley went furthest in seeking to stave off a national security crisis, his alarm was shared throughout the highest ranks of the administration, the authors reveal. CIA director Gina Haspel, for instance, reportedly told Milley, ‘’We are on the way to a right-wing coup.’’
The book also provides fresh reporting on President Biden’s campaign — waged to unseat a man he told a top adviser ‘’isn’t really an American president’' — and his early struggle to govern. During a March 5 phone call to discuss Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, his first major legislative undertaking, the president reportedly told Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, ‘’if you don’t come along, you’re really f---ing me.’’ The measure ultimately cleared the Senate through an elaborate sequencing of amendments designed to satisfy the centrist Democrat.
The president’s frustration with Manchin is matched only by his debt to House majority whip, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, whose endorsement before that state’s primary propelled Biden to the nomination and gave rise to promises about how he would govern.
‘’Peril,’’ the authors say, is based on interviews with more than 200 people, conducted on the condition they not be named as sources. Exact quotations or conclusions are drawn from the participant in the described event, a colleague with direct knowledge or relevant documents, according to an author’s note. Trump and Biden declined to be interviewed.
Milley, for his part, took what the authors describe as a deferential approach to Biden on Afghanistan, in contrast to his earlier efforts to constrain Trump. The book reveals recent remarks the chairman delivered to the Joint Chiefs in which he said, ‘’Here’s a couple of rules of the road here that we’re going to follow. One is you never, ever ever box in a president of the United States. You always give him decision space.’’ Referring to Biden, he said, ‘’You’re dealing with a seasoned politician here who has been in Washington, D.C., 50 years, whatever it is.’’