Read this post if you haven’t already for background. Bob Woodward’s new book claims that Milley secretly made two calls to China’s top general, the first on October 30 and the second on January 8, two days after the insurrection. Both calls were allegedly aimed at reassuring the Chinese that the intelligence they had about a surprise U.S. attack was unfounded and that, despite Trump’s attempt to cling to power, the United States government was stable. Supposedly Milley also assured the general that if Trump gave an order to attack China, Milley would make sure that China knew about it — i.e. there’d be no U.S. ambush, therefore China shouldn’t do anything reckless to try to “preempt” one.
If all of that’s true then Milley is guilty of two grave derelictions of duty, promising to disclose classified info to an enemy about an impending attack and conducting diplomacy with a foreign power outside the chain of command, unbeknownst to his civilian superiors.
But is Woodward’s account accurate? Two news outlets, Axios and Josh Rogin of WaPo, claim that it was defense secretary Mark Esper rather than Milley who initiated the back-channel reassurances to China last October. Milley’s call was just a follow-up to Esper’s own outreach to Beijing to avert any military misunderstandings. But what about the January 8 call? Chris Miller was acting defense secretary by that point, not Esper. Did he also order, or at least know of, Milley’s communication with the Chinese?
According to Politico’s sources, he did. Milley didn’t go around the civilian leadership with that phone call either.
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.
Is that true? Was the civilian chain of command in the loop for the January 8 call too?
The obvious person to ask is Chris Miller, so Politico did. Miller told them that Milley “almost certainly told him he was going to call his Chinese counterpart” but he didn’t recall being briefed on what was said afterward. (Wouldn’t Miller have asked Milley what transpired during a call with China’s top military official two days after the Capitol was attacked?) Miller thinks there may have been a “perfunctory” exchange between him and Milley about coordinating messages that day. But he added that if it’s true that Milley was freelancing diplomatically and promising the Chinese a heads-up if an attack was impending, that would be “completely inappropriate and completely contrary to civilian oversight of the military…”
Fox News also interviewed Miller today about Woodward’s allegations and found him more emphatic than Politico did. Miller claimed that he “did not and would not ever authorize” a secret call between Milley and China’s general and that, if it happened the way Woodward claims, it’s a “disgraceful and unprecedented act of insubordination.” But Fox’s own sources are telling them that it didn’t happen the way Woodward claimed:
Fox News spoke with multiple individuals who were in the room during the two phone calls Milley had with Li. The calls, in October, were coordinated with then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s office.
“They were not secret,” a U.S. official told Fox News about the calls, which took place over video teleconference.
Fox News has learned there were about 15 people present for the calls. Sources told Fox News that there were multiple notetakers present, and said the calls were both conducted with full knowledge of then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller—something Miller denied.