Claims in an upcoming book that a frantic Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley made secret calls to his Chinese counterpart are greatly exaggerated, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
A forthcoming book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa claims that Milley grew concerned about then-President Donald Trump’s instability and the possibility that he might spark a war with China, prompting him to arrange a pair of secret phone calls with Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army. The first was on Oct. 30, just four days before the presidential election, and the second on Jan. 8, two days after a mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.
During the calls, Milley reassured Li that the United States would not strike, and pledged to give his counterpart a heads up if Trump ordered an attack, according to The Washington Post.
“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,” Milley is reported to have said.
A defense official familiar with the calls said that description is “grossly mischaracterized.”
The official said the calls were not out of the ordinary, and the chairman was not frantically trying to reassure his counterpart.
The people also said that Milley did not go rogue in placing the call, as the book suggests. In fact, Milley asked permission from acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller before making the call, said one former senior defense official, who was in the room for the meeting. Milley also briefed the secretary’s office after the call, the former official said.
“We discussed beforehand and after his call with his Chinese counterpart,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
In an interview Wednesday, Miller told POLITICO that Milley almost certainly told him he was going to call his Chinese counterpart, but he didn’t recall getting a detailed readout of the call after.
“Looking back, I imagine there was a perfunctory exchange between us and our staffs about coordinating phone calls and messages for the day,” he said. “I don’t recall the specifics and it certainly wasn’t in a detailed or more formal way. It was more perfunctory/routine.”
A Joint Staff spokesperson said all of Milley’s calls with his counterparts, including those with Chinese leaders, “are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency.”
“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,” said Col. Dave Butler.
Asked about the claims in a press briefing on Wednesday, White House spokesperson said President Joe Biden thinks Milley is a “patriot.”
“He has confidence in his leadership,” Psaki said.
Miller said that if the Woodward and Costa report is accurate, “it would be completely inappropriate and completely contrary to civilian oversight of the military if he was conducting foreign policy activities or national security activities of that nature, but I don’t know if that call is accurate. I don’t know if it’s true or not.”
He added that such a call would be “pretty troubling for civilian oversight and would be really contrary to the Constitution if true. … If the way the Woodward book portrays the nature of the phone call is accurate, it’s not in accordance with the way we do things in our government and our republic.”
In a statement, Woodward and Costa told POLITICO: “We stand by our reporting.”