WASHINGTON: US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fended off perhaps the most personal and direct attacks from lawmakers of his career on Tuesday (Sep 28) as Republicans blasted his calls with China and his interviews for books critical of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Milley, 63, was unshaken as Republicans called for his resignation during an already contentious hearing that was meant to focus on the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan – but repeatedly swerved into questions regarding the general.
When asked, Milley acknowledged talking to Washington Post author Bob Woodward for a book that showcased Milley’s role trying to avert a crisis over apparent Chinese fears that Trump might attack Beijing in his final months in office.
The book detailed supposedly “secret” calls with General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army on Oct 30, 2020 and again on Jan 8, and said Milley had promised to warn China first if he were ordered to attack.
Milley confirmed the calls but said they were not secret to US government officials and that he was acting on instructions from some of Trump’s top aides to de-escalate tensions. He acknowledged trying send Beijing a message that “we are not going to attack you” following US intelligence indicating China feared an attack.
Republican Senator Dan Sullivan challenged Milley, insinuating he would be executed for that kind of behaviour in China.
“If the head of the PLA called you and said, ‘Hey, we’re getting ready to invade Taiwan’ and (Chinese President) Xi Jinping found out about it, he’d be shot,” Sullivan said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Milley said the calls fit within his mandate to ensure strategic stability.
“I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese and it is my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent,” Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Trump, in a statement, has said he “never even thought of attacking China.” But after the initial account of Milley’s calls with China surfaced, Trump said Milley should be fired if they were true.
Milley acknowledged that he also spoke on Jan 8 with US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, according to the Washington Post, had asked the general what safeguards were in place to prevent an “unstable president” from launching a nuclear strike.
“He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy,” Pelosi told Milley, the newspaper reported, citing a transcript of the call.
Milley, in his remarks to Congress, said Pelosi had asked him on Jan 8 about whether Trump’s actions might lead to an accidental nuclear missile launch.
He responded by assuring her of safeguards and added: “I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the President of the United States.”
Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself into the chain of command.”
President Joe Biden has supported Milley throughout the controversy surrounding the calls, saying he had “great confidence” in him.
But it is not the first time the top US military officer has been caught in the spotlight. Last year, Milley caused an uproar after accompanying Trump toward a church for a photo opportunity just after authorities cracked down on civil rights protesters.
He later said he regretted it, saying the incident created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.
In one exchange on Tuesday, Milley acknowledged also speaking with two other sets of book authors. Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn lashed out at him.
“In order to get your name in a book … all you have managed to do is to politicise the US military, to downgrade our reputation with our allies,” Blackburn said.