The Fraught Final Days of Trump's Presidency: 'You Know He's Crazy'
The nation's top military official grew alarmed about President Donald Trump's White House and took steps to avoid clashing with China in the final months of his volatile administration, according to a forthcoming book.
The new details come from Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, which describes scenes of anxiety and fear over Trump's behavior.
But it's the descriptions of what Gen. Mark A. Milley did that have drawn sharp responses from Republican lawmakers and Trump himself, though Milley has downplayed his actions as not undercutting the president or civilian control of the military.
A report in The Washington Post, where both of Peril's authors are reporters, cites the book's claim that Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made secret phone calls to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, to project calm and prevent any possibility of armed conflict he worried might unfold due to Trump's actions.
Peril reports that one call took place on Oct. 30, just before the presidential election, and another on Jan. 8, two days after the pro-Trump riots at the U.S. Capitol.
"General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay," Milley said, according to the book. "We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you."
In a scathing statement that mentions the turmoil of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Trump responded to this account with characteristic bombast: "If the story of 'Dumbass' General Mark Milley … is true, then I assume he would be tried for TREASON in that he would have been dealing with his Chinese counterpart behind the President's back and telling China that he would be giving them notification 'of an attack.' Can't do that!"
Trump then called the reporting in Peril "fake news," saying the book's authors are writers of "fiction." He also said he never considered attacking China.
NPR reports that Milley has confirmed that calls to Li and others took place in October and again in January but a spokesperson said the conversations were nothing out of the ordinary and that the general did not break protocol by getting in touch with his Chinese counterpart.
He was "conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability," the spokesperson said.
"All calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense" as well as the U.S. security and intelligence community's inter-agency pipeline, the spokesperson added, according to the report.
In a separate report from Axios, sources suggested that U.S. military officials were duly attempting to assuage China's concerns over an attack prompted by misleading or misinterpreted intelligence on the part of the Chinese.
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden's opinion of Milley has not diminished in light of these new reports.
"I can't speak to the former president's experience with him or the former president's views of him," Psaki said of Milley. "But ... this current president, who follows the Constitution, who's not fomenting an insurrection, who follows the rule of law, has complete confidence in Chairman Milley."
Peril, set for release on Tuesday, contains additional anecdotes — gathered from 200 unnamed sources, according to the Post — about several intense moments during Trump's presidency and other leaders' efforts to mitigate what they considered his erratic behavior.
After the riots at the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi contacted Milley, according to the book, asking him, "What precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?"
Milley reportedly responded by saying there were "a lot of checks in the system."
The authors of Peril also cite a transcript of the Jan. 8 conversation between Pelosi and Milley in which the speaker, referring to Trump, says, "He's crazy. You know he's crazy. … He's crazy and what he did yesterday is further evidence of his craziness."
Milley reportedly replied, "I agree with you on everything."
Peril reports that Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican and the Senate majority leader at the time, was also concerned about protecting Trump's mood after the election was called for Biden.
According to Peril — which follows Woodward's other headline-making books about Trump, some of which Trump participated in even as he dismissed them as false — the Senate majority leader enlisted the help of various parties to prevent a call from Biden to Trump because he thought a conversation between them would enrage Trump.
McConnell reportedly asked Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, to ask Sen. Christopher A. Coons, a Democrat and friend of the president-elect, to tell Biden not to call the president.
Then-Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, turned to fellow Indiana native Dan Quayle for guidance on whether he was able to stop the certification of the election as Trump wanted. Quayle rejected any such idea, however.
"Mike, you have no flexibility on this," he said, according to Peril. "None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away."
Requests for comment on the revelations in Peril were not answered by various representatives for McConnell, Pelosi, Pence and Trump.