The controversy swirling around the Pentagon‘s top uniformed officer showed no signs of easing Wednesday after a bombshell book revealed that the general effectively went around President Trump during the waning days of his administration to reassure China’s communist leaders that the U.S. had no intention of attacking them and would warn them if a strike was on the way.
The book, by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, said Gen. Milley became so concerned about Mr. Trump’s mental state that he assembled senior military leaders and advised them not to carry out a presidential order to launch a nuclear strike unless he was there.
Since the book’s reporting was revealed, Mr. Trump has harshly criticized the general he appointed to the top post two years ago. Republicans and even a few Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed anger and unease over the general’s actions and the state of civilian control of the military.
“If the allegations are true, Gen. Milley should go down in history as a traitor to the American people,” Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, said in a Twitter message.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said she had “real concerns” about Gen. Milley’s conduct even if he did not cross the line.
“I don’t think at any point from the reports that I’ve read [that] he actually ordered subordinates to betray the president’s orders,” Ms. Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, said in an interview. “I think what he said was to make sure that ‘I’m in the loop.’ And then carry out your duties.’”
“I think that’s appropriate, but I have some real concerns,” she said.
Not backing down
Gen. Milley defended his actions Wednesday and did not deny the substance of the book’s reporting.
Col. Dave Butler said in a statement to reporters that the general’s calls during the fraught weeks before and after the November presidential election were routine and cleared through the regular chain of command.
“His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability,” the colonel said in a written statement. “All calls from the chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency.”
President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stood by the Joint Chiefs chairman.
“The president knows Gen. Milley …,” White House spokeswoman Jan Psaki told reporters. “They’ve worked side by side through a range of international events, and the president has complete confidence in his leadership, his patriotism and his fidelity to our Constitution.”
The political firestorm showed no signs of easing. Several Republican House and Senate members called on Gen. Milley to be fired or court-martialed. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Republican leadership and of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was withholding judgment of whether the general should quit but said at a minimum the chairman “needs to explain himself before Congress.”
“If this is true Gen. Milley must resign,” Mr. Vindman said on Twitter. “He usurped civilian authority, broke Chain of Command, and violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent. You can’t simply walk away from that.”
Pentagon officials did not deny the accusations in the forthcoming book, “Peril,” by Mr. Woodward and Mr. Costa. But they said the book put a sinister spin on a common practice and that senior U.S. military leaders frequently talk to their counterparts from other countries, even adversaries such as China.
“Frequent communication with two countries like Russia and China is not atypical for a chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “Those communications are routine. They’re staffed, and they’re coordinated.”
The book says Gen. Milley came to believe that the Chinese were concerned Mr. Trump might launch a preemptive missile strike against them because he was becoming erratic over the results of the presidential election. The general called his Chinese counterpart on Jan. 8, shortly after pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed bid to prevent the certification of the election.
A spokesman for the Joint Staff said the calls with Chinese government officials were “in keeping with these duties and responsibilities, conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence in the George W. Bush administration, said he is initially wary of any book from Mr. Woodward, the famed but polarizing Post reporter.
“I think he has proven that he does not always get it right,” said Gen. Boykin, currently the executive vice president of the Family Research Council. “But if this is correct, it’s unbelievable. This is the kind of thing that has to be dealt with by the Congress and by the military leadership inside a courtroom.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Gen. Boykin said. “[Gen. Milley] needs to be taken to task over this. He needs to be held accountable.”
Breaking a norm
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman is America’s top military figure but is technically outside the chain of command for any military actions. By law, he is strictly the senior military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense.
“When he provides his best military advice to the president, he is synthesizing the best military advice of the other joint chiefs from each of the services,” said Katherine Kuzminski, the director of the military veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security.
“He is also responsible for taking the president’s views on strategy and reflecting that back to the joint chiefs,” she said. “It really is an important position that serves as a conduit between the political world and the military services themselves.”
If the accusations in the Woodward book are true, Gen. Milley’s actions raise serious concerns about civil-military relations in the U.S., Ms. Kuzminski said.
“That’s not the role of the chairman. It’s breaking a norm,” she said. “You don’t want a chairman injecting themselves into the political apparatus.”
Gen. Milley’s actions could further politicize a U.S. military whose official partisan neutrality has been questioned in recent years, Ms. Kuzminski said.
“In Milley’s case, in particular, I think that both sides of the aisle think he’s playing for the other side,” she said. “The left was criticizing him for being an ‘agent for the right,’ and now the right is criticizing him for being an ‘agent for the left.’”
Gen. Milley is slated to go before Congress on Sept. 28. He is already facing a potentially hostile reception over the Pentagon‘s handling of the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal and the strategic costs of the victory by the Taliban over the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The book’s revelations won’t make the grilling any easier.
Gen. Milley’s relations with Mr. Trump were strained even before the November election. The White House and Pentagon clashed over the potential use of the military to help deal with race-related public protests in the summer of 2020. The general apologized for appearing in military fatigues as Mr. Trump walked to a church near the White House to hold up a Bible and vow to restore order in the streets of the capital.
If the accusations in the book are correct, then Gen. Milley should step down or be dismissed from the position, Ms. Kuzminski said.
“It does feel a bit ‘rogue.’ You now have a chairman who was willing to subvert the executive branch if they feel it’s necessary,” she said. “Once you break a civil-military norm, it becomes evident you’re willing to break civil-military norms.”
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.
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