Milley Defends Call to Chinese Counterpart, Says He Was Not Trying to ‘Usurp Authority or Insert Myself’

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., September 28, 2021.
(Patrick Semansky/Reuters)

General Mark Milley on Tuesday defended his controversial calls to his counterpart in China, saying they were undertaken at the direction of defense officials after intelligence revealed the Chinese were concerned about a potential attack by the U.S.

Milley was on the defensive during a hearing before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on Tuesday after excerpts from a new book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed that the chairman spoke with People’s Liberation Army General Li Zuocheng on October 30, 2020, and January 8, 2021.

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Milley reportedly told Li during the initial call that he would give China a warning in the event of an attack, according to Woodward and Costa. Excerpts from the pair’s new book, Peril, said Milley made the calls because he was concerned about possible military action from then-President Trump during the final days of his presidency. The excerpt suggested the calls were made in “secret” without the consultation of other agencies or the White House.

While the revelation was met with calls for Milley’s resignation from numerous Republicans, he affirmed his “absolute” loyalty to the United States on Tuesday and said the calls were routine and were not held in secret.

He said he routinely communicated with Li as he is “specifically directed” to communicate with the Chinese by Department of Defense guidance in order to “deconflict military actions, manage crisis and prevent war between great powers that are armed with the worlds most deadliest weapons.”

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According to Milley, the pair of calls were coordinated with the interagency and the staffs of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who was in office during the first call, as well as Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who assumed the role ahead of the second call.

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He said the calls were “generated by concerning intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.” He would not elaborate on the intelligence which prompted the calls but said he would be willing to do so in a classified setting.

“I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese and … it was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” he said, adding that his task was to “deescalate.”

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“My message again was consistent: stay calm, steady and deescalate,” Milley added. “We are not going to attack you.”

According to Woodward and Costa, Milley told the Chinese general that he wanted to assure him “that the American government is stable and everything is going to be OK.”

“We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you,” Milley reportedly said. “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 testified that eight people sat in on the October 30 call and that distributed a read out of the call within 30 minutes of its ending.

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The second call then took place at the request of the Chinese, he said, and was coordinated by the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia pacific policy. Eleven people were in attendance for the second call and readouts were distributed to the interagency that same day, according to Milley.

He added that he “personally informed” both then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about the call before briefing Miller.

Milley also defended a conversation he had with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi later that day in which the Democrat asked about President Trump’s ability to launch nuclear weapons.

He said he “sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate processes” and that there was “no chance of an illegal, unauthorized or accidental launch.”

He said he also told Pelosi that he is not qualified to determine the mental health of the president after the speaker “made various personal references characterizing the president.”

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Milley said he “immediately” informed Miller of Pelosi’s call.

“At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority or insert myself in the chain of command but I am expected, I am required, to give my advice and ensure that the president is fully informed on military matters,” he said.

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Milley concluded by saying he would “welcome a thorough walkthrough on every single one of these events.”

“My oath is to support the constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic and I will never turn my back on that oath,” he said. “I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a bedrock principle essential to the health of this republic and I’m committed to ensuring that the military stays clear of domestic politics,” he said.

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