Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who worked alongside Milley in the Trump administration, also spoke up for Milley, and Milley’s spokesman released a statement claiming Milley had acted correctly.
Current and former defense officials on Wednesday rebuffed the idea that Milley was irrelevant, saying his appeals to his Chinese counterpart were conducted under protocols similar to other high-level engagements by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and in consultation with civilians in the Department of Defense. , implicitly rejecting criticism that Milley had acted in secret.
There were 15 people on the two video conferences Milley held with his Chinese counterpart, one on October 30 and another on January 8 – including a representative from the State Department, according to a defense official. The reading and notes of the calls were shared with the intelligence community and the agency, the official said.
Two backchannel calls
The upcoming book “Peril” documents Milley’s two covert calls to China’s top general, Li Zuocheng, which Milley initiated due to intelligence suggesting that China believed the United States was going to attack them. Milley sought to calm Li down by reassuring him that the United States was not considering a strike.
“General Li, you and I have known each other for five years now. If we’re going to attack, I’ll call you ahead. It won’t be a surprise. It won’t be an out of the blue flash,” Milley said. during the Oct. 30 appeal, according to Woodward and Costa.
“If there was a war or some kind of kinetic action between the United States and China, there would be a build-up, as there has always been in history,” he told Li according to the book.
Milley led the October 30 appeal in consultation with then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. But former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller told CNN on Wednesday he had not been made aware of the extent of Milley’s engagement with the Chinese.
“Come to think of it, I suspect Milley provided me with a ‘I’m calling my overseas counterparts to check in’ after 1/6 during our daily ‘stand up’ sync / coordination meeting,” Miller told CNN in a text. “But it was certainly not an in-depth conversation and certainly no detail on the themes and the content.”
According to the book, Milley reassured Li during this second call that while the United States might appear “unstable” after the Capitol attack, “we are 100 percent stable. Everything is fine.
“I wouldn’t have approved of anything of the nature described in Woodward’s book,” Miller said.
A defense official familiar with the appeal said Miller’s office was properly briefed.
Milley’s spokesman Col. Dave Butler said in a statement that Milley’s calls with other defense chiefs “remain essential to enhance mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reduce tensions, bring clarity and avoid unforeseen consequences or conflicts “.
“His appeals with the Chinese and others in October and January were consistent with these reassured duties and responsibilities in order to maintain strategic stability,” Butler said. “All of the president’s calls to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Defense Department and the interagency.”
The GOP attacks Milley
But the revelation of the two calls quickly drew criticism from former Trump administration officials and Republican lawmakers, who called it dangerous independent diplomacy conducted behind closed doors. It wasn’t necessarily the calls themselves that alarmed Milley’s critics, but the assurances he gave to China that the United States would not launch a surprise attack.
Hours after CNN and The Washington Post published reports with the new details of “Peril,” Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio called on President Joe Biden to fire Milley.
Milley “worked actively to undermine the acting Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces and envisioned a betrayed leak of classified information to the Communist Party of China ahead of a potential armed conflict with the People’s Republic of China,” Rubio wrote. in a letter. at Biden on Tuesday.
Rubio accused Milley’s instruction to officers to call him before executing orders had “interfered with the procedures by which the civilian commander-in-chief can order a nuclear strike.”
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, told reporters on Tuesday that Milley needed to determine whether the quotes attributed to him in the book were true. “If they are, it’s a gross violation of the chain of command,” said Cruz. “Our constitution incorporates civilian control of the military, and if the chairman of the joint chiefs actively undermines the commander-in-chief and promises our enemies to defy his orders, that is totally incompatible with his responsibilities.”
Cruz added that he “hoped the quotes were inaccurate”.
And Trump released his own statement Tuesday night suggesting Milley should stand trial for treason, adding that he had “never thought of attacking China.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Milley’s actions were “entirely appropriate” to review nuclear weapons launch protocols, and that as a key military adviser to the president, Milley would be “Intimately involved” in any decision to launch nuclear weapons.
Milley’s scrutiny comes after some Republicans last month called on Milley and other senior national security officials in Biden to step down following the missteps of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.
Milley will testify later this month
Milley is sure to face pointed questions publicly about his actions in the final days of the Trump administration when he is scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 28.
Still, a GOP congressional aide said most Republicans are likely to want to stay focused on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan during the hearing, which will be the first time Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have testified on withdrawal.
Some former officials have come to Milley’s defense.
“In the days following Donald Trump’s election defeat on November 3, 2020, I can only imagine the pressure he and others were under to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” Bolton said in a statement. “I have no doubt that General Milley consulted widely with his colleagues in the National Security Council and others during this period. I would also be very surprised if many of them were not fully aware of the actions. of General Milley and that they fully subscribe to it. ”
In “Peril,” Woodward and Costa write that Milley called his Chinese counterpart on October 30 when “sensitive intelligence” showed the Chinese “believed Trump in desperation would create a crisis, present himself as the savior and use the bet. to be re-elected. ”
A former senior defense official told CNN that the Chinese were unusually concerned about the rhetoric emanating from Washington in the days leading up to the election, and public rhetoric on the Chinese side was escalating as a result. Esper instructed his senior politician to send a behind-the-scenes message to Beijing to reassure the Chinese, which was done before Milley’s call, the former official said.
“It was a two-step process led by civilians from SecDef and DoD,” the official said. “This is an important distinction. The aim was to avoid any unnecessary confrontation that could lead to conflict.”
The second call Milley made was on January 8, and Woodward and Costa write that Milley knew the Chinese leadership was “stunned and bewildered by the televised footage of the unprecedented attack on the US legislature.” Other countries, including Russia and Iran, were also on high alert.
“Things can seem volatile,” Milley said on the call, according to the book. “But that is the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent stable. Everything is fine. But democracy can sometimes be sloppy.”
After the call, Milley “was convinced that the situation was serious,” according to the book, as Li remained unusually shaken.
Later that day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him, asking how Trump could be stopped from using nuclear weapons. Milley reassured Pelosi on the call, according to a transcript of the conversation detailed in “Peril.” But after that second call, Milley decided to call the meeting in his office, according to the book, where he told officers to consult with him before executing military strike orders or launching nuclear weapons.
CNN’s Jamie Gangel, Elizabeth Stuart and Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.