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Gen. Mark Milley says he was conducting the duties of his office — not circumventing presidential authority — when he spoke to his Chinese counterpart shortly before last year’s election, according to a statement the Pentagon issued Wednesday.
Milley’s actions in the final months of former President Donald Trump’s term made headlines this week after a new book by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was attempting to head off a potential armed conflict when he called Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng.
The book, Peril, is not yet released. It describes Milley as being “fearful Trump might spark war,” according to The Washington Post.
Milley confirms that he spoke to Li and other world military leaders in October and in January. But Joint Staff spokesperson Col. Dave Butler said those communications were part of his normal duties and responsibilities “conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.”
Butler also said Milley did not break protocol in the way he got in touch with Li.
“All calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense” as well as the U.S. security and intelligence community’s interagency pipeline, Butler said.
The Pentagon did not detail what Milley spoke about in his two conversations with China’s top general — one of which reportedly took place days before the U.S. presidential election, with the other reportedly dating to shortly after the Jan. 6 riot and attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
Here’s how the Post’s national political reporter Isaac Stanley-Becker, who has read Woodward and Costa’s book, describes the circumstances around Milley’s actions in an interview with NPR:
“Milley had reviewed intelligence suggesting that the Chinese believed the U.S. was preparing to attack at that time, and he feared a hair-trigger situation in which there could be miscalculation, or a preemptive strike by China in an attempt to fend this off or get ahead of it.
“And at the time, there were tensions over military exercises in the South China Sea; these tensions were deepened by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward China on the campaign trail. So [Milley] tried to assuage these fears by saying the U.S. was stable and was not preparing to lash out at China.”
In response to reports about Milley’s actions as described in the book, Trump and his allies said the general’s behavior was treasonous.
If the accounts are accurate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, “It was an act of treachery that posed a grave risk to our security & our constitutional order.”
Trump nominated Milley to be the Pentagon’s top military officer in late 2018. News of his contacts with foreign military officials sparked a round of questions at Wednesday’s White House press briefing, at which press secretary Jen Psaki noted that President Biden has now worked with Milley “side by side” for nearly eight months.
“His experience with him has been that he is a patriot,” Psaki said of the president’s relationship with the military leader. “He is somebody who has fidelity to the Constitution,” she said, adding that Biden “has confidence in [Milley’s] leadership and the role he has played in his experience with him.”
The Pentagon also confirmed that Milley spoke to a group of U.S. officers about how to handle a potential order to deliver a nuclear attack in the wake of the Jan. 6 chaos, as Biden’s victory over Trump was certified.
According to Stanley-Becker:
“Milley was concerned about checks in the system and ensuring that there wasn’t some sort of improper, illegal or immoral action, as he put it to senior officers.
“So what he does on Jan. 8 is to summon senior officers to review these procedures, and to tell them, ‘The president has the authority to decide on action, but there are other steps, and I also have to be made aware of that decision. So whatever happens, clue me in.’
“And it’s this remarkable scene in the book, where he goes officer by officer, looks them in the eye and asks them to affirm that they understood his directions.”
Of that meeting, the Pentagon said Milley was performing his duties of ensuring that the military’s leaders were “aware of current issues.”
“The meeting regarding nuclear weapons protocols was to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject,” Butler said.
“Gen. Milley continues to act and advise within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military and his oath to the Constitution.”
Speaking to the right-wing news organization Newsmax on Tuesday, Trump said: “If it is actually true — which is hard to believe, that he would have called China and done these things and was willing to advise them of an attack or in advance of an attack — that’s treason.”
Trump denied he had ever been planning an attack on China.
NPR’s Alana Wise contributed to this report.