Top US general Milley defends calls with China, says Trump never intended to attack China

General Mark Milley said he had been aiming to ease tension with Beijing and not to "usurp authority".
General Mark Milley said he had been aiming to ease tension with Beijing and not to "usurp authority".PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - General Mark Milley, the top United States military officer, testified on Tuesday (Sept 28) that calls with his Chinese counterpart in the turbulent waning months of Mr Donald Trump’s administration were intended to “de-escalate” tensions and the former president had no intention of attacking China.

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 calls between Gen Milley and his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, were first revealed in the book Peril by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. 

The first call was on Oct 30, four days before the US presidential election, and the second was on Jan 8, two days after supporters of Mr Trump stormed the US Capitol in an effort to prevent certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election victory.

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.

“I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: stay calm and steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you,” he said.

Some Republican lawmakers have accused Gen Milley of overstepping his authority and called for him to resign.

Republican Senator Dan Sullivan challenged Milley, insinuating he would be executed for that kind of behavior 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.

In his Senate testimony, Gen Milley defended his actions and said the calls were coordinated with the then secretaries of defence.

“The specific purpose of the October and January calls was generated by concerning intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack by the US,” Gen Milley said.

“These military-to-military communications at the highest levels are critical to the security of the United States in order to deconflict military actions, manage crisis, and prevent war between great powers armed with nuclear weapons,” he said. 

“At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself into the chain of command,” Gen Milley said.

“I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a bedrock principle essential to this Republic and I am committed to ensuring the military stays clear of domestic politics,” he added.

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.

‘He doesn’t launch them alone’

Gen Milley also addressed a phone call he had with Ms Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, in which – according to Peril – she sought reassurances that there was no danger of Mr Trump unilaterally launching a nuclear strike.

“I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process,” Gen Milley told the Senate committee. 

“She was concerned and made various personal references characterising the president,” Gen Milley said. “I explained that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, but he doesn’t launch them alone.”

According to the book, Ms Pelosi, referring to Mr Trump, said: “You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time”, and Gen Milley responded: “Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything.”

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.

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 politicize the US military, to downgrade our reputation with our allies,” Blackburn said.