Biden, Bob Woodward, China, Dan Sullivan, Donald Trump, House Armed Services Committee, Im-Politic, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, Nancy Pelosi, Peril, Rick Scott, Robert Costa, Senate Armed Services Committee, Vicky Hartzler, Washington Post
Mark Milley must be one of the luckiest folks in America. The rest of us, not so much. Because more than two weeks after the news broke of a new book claiming that this top U.S. Army General promised his Chinese counterpart advance warning of an American attack, and despite two days of sworn Congressional testimony on the subject, Milley has still not expressly denied the charge. In fact, he’s further muddied these crucial waters. Consequently, someone who might have committed treason and at the very least may suffer from horrendous judgment remains the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and therefore President Biden’s chief military adviser.
To recap, the book (Peril), by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) and Robert Costa, contended that last October 30, Milley telephoned People’s Liberation Army General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, to reassure him that, contrary to China’s alleged fears, “the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay.”
Milley then supposedly continued with this stunner: “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.”
If you don’t think this qualifies as at least the contemplation of treason, you need a Trump Derangement Syndrome check. Further, as I explained in September 16’s post, if the Woodward-Costa reporting is accurate, Milley’s call could have placed the United States in the gravest danger – to the point of prompting a preemptive Chinese attack (conventional or nuclear) on U.S. military forces Beijing deemed especially threatening, or even on the American homeland itself.
Woodward and Costa stand by their reporting. And as I noted, nothing could have been easier for Milley to deny specifically and categorically saying any such thing. Since he failed, however, I felt pretty confident that his scheduled appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee (which was followed by a next-day session with the House Armed Services Committee) would finally set the record straight.
Unfortunately, both sets of lawmakers let Milley off the hook. (Here are the C-SPAN transcripts of the Senate and House sessions.) The China calls came up at both hearings, but Milley’s most specific responses kept significantly contradicting each other. At the Senate hearing, Republican Dan Sullivan of Alaska, noted to Milley that “You’re quoted as telling the top Chinese Communit military commander quote ‘if we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time.’ Is that true?”
Replied Milley: “Let me tell you what I actually said. What I said, if there’s going to be a war, if it there’s going to be an attack, there’s going to be a lot of calls and tension ahead of time.”
Sullivan then interjected: “Your testimony was you were certain President Trump would not attack. That’s your testimony this morning.”
Milley responded: “That is true. I was communicating to my Chinese counterpart instructions, by the way, to deescalate the situation, and I told him, we are not going to attack. President Trump has no intent to attack. I told him that repeatedly. I told him if therre was going to be an attack, there would be plenty of communications. I said I will probably call you. We’re not going to attack you. Just settle down. It’s not going to happen. And I did it twice in October and January.”
Sullivan interrupted again: “You’re giving a heads up to the Chinese Communist Party –
Milley replied, “I didn’t give them a heads up because we’re not going to attack. I was being faithful to the intent. I was being faithful to his [Trump’s] intent, Senator.”
Shortly thereafter, a similar exchange took place between Milley and Florida Republican Rick Scott. Here’s how it went:
Scott: (after Milley stated that, “I don’t even know what [Woodward and Costa have] written”:
“So this conversation about whether you would give prior notice to the military Communist China that America is not going to attack. So it is your testimony you will no ever give a heads up to the Communist Chinese military if the President of the United States. It doesn’t matter who the President is, that you are reporting to, is ready to attack?”
Milley: “Of course I wouldn’t.”
Scott: “You don’t feel like you did that, you said that at all.”
Milley: “No. The context we, we’re talking about, Senator, there was a significant degree of intelligence and I think I put the unclassified version in that timeline. It is not insignificant. Not like one reporter two. It is an entire bod of intelligence that led us to believe that the Chinese were misinterpreting our actions and misinterpreting what was happening inside our own country politically and they were assessing a situation that was leading to escalation, possible incident, and it would have been quite dangerous. So Secretary [of Defense Mark] Esper and I met and we met with other members of the team, and we developed an engagement plan to enure that we engaged at various levels, Secretary Esper, and he asked me to do that so I did that. I made a call and the theme was to de-escalate to lower tensions. I believe that is a faithful and loyal execution of my Constitutional responsibilities and I believe that was faithfully executing the intent of the President of the United States at the time because I knew with certainty President Trump was not going to attack the Chinese just out of the blue. It wasn’t going to happen. And if things did happen, there would be periods of tension, calls going back and forth.”
The problems with these Milley answers are:
First, they’re an awfully roundabout way of saying something on the order of “During my October 30 phone conversation with General Li, I never promised him I’d give him a heads up of any kind on an impending U.S. attack.”
Second, Milley’s claim that he hadn’t read the Woodward-Costa book – or even the relevant excerpts – simply strains credulity, especially since his original prepared remarks to both Senate and House panels make clear he knew the subject would come up. In fact, this business about him being unfamiliar with the exact Woodward-Costa claim could well be a legal device to avoid a lying to Congress charge if the book does turn out to be accurate.
Third, his responses are largely conditional on his insistence that he didn’t believe any Trump attack on China was being planned. This position flatly contradicts another contention made by Woodward and Costa. Of course, the authors could well be wrong.
At the same time, there’s tension between Milley’s remarks on this issue and his admission that right after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi phoned him to express major concerns that Trump was crazy enough to make such a reckless decision, the General says he “convened a short meeting in my office with key members of my staff to refresh all of us on the procedures, which we practiced daily at the action officer level.”
If he didn’t harbor any fears of a lunatic President, though, why take this step? Moreover, did he think his own “key” staff members were significantly less up to speed on such life-and-death protocols as the “action officers” who practiced them every day?
And finally, Milley’s insistence that “of course he wouldn’t” ever “give a heads up” to China about an impending attack clashes with his statement to Sullivan that he told General Li “repeatedly, I told him if there was going to be an attack, there would be plenty of communications. I said I will probably call you.” Unless the purpose of the call was to deceive the Chinese and convince them to let down their guard?
Milley had another chance to end the controversy the following day at the House hearing. Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler asked him point blank, “Did you or did you not ask – tell [General Li] that if we were going to attack, you would let him know?”
Milley’s response: “As part of that conversation, I said, ‘General Lee [sic] there’s not going to be a war. There’s not going to be an attack between great powers, and if it was, the tensions would build up, there would be calls going back and forth between senior officials. Hell, I’ll call you. But we’re not going to attack you. Trust me. We’re not going to attack you. These are two great powers and I am doing my best to transmit the President’s intent, President Trump’s intent, to make sure the incident doesn’t escalate.”
Clear as a bell, right? And difficult to reconcile with his statement the previous day that he told Li that “if there was going to be an attack,” he would “probably call.” (Unless, again, to throw him and his country off the track – a possibility Milley never mentioned?)
As I’ve maintained all along, Milley is innocent until proven guilty. But the General has now had two weeks and several chances to explain himself clearly, and dropped the ball every time. The kind of questions his remarks still raise can’t be left unanswered, whether President Biden has “great confidence” in him or not.
In fact, just as easy as it would be for Milley to forthrightly challenge legitimately lingering doubts would be for Mr. Biden to dispel them completely. There’s surely a verbatim recording of the October 30 call in the government’s national security apparatus. All the President needs to do is order its full de-classification and release.