Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley vigorously defended his two telephone calls on Oct. 30, 2020, and Jan. 8, 2021, to reassure the top leader of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that then-President Donald Trump had no intention of launching a military attack on Beijing.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee in an opening statement addressing the widespread criticism he received following a report on the two calls prompted by a story by The Washington Post citing an excerpt from “Peril,” a book published earlier this month by authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
“My loyalty is absolute … and I routinely communicated with my counterpart, Gen. Li [Zuocheng], with the knowledge and coordination of civilian oversight. I am specifically directed to communicate with the Chinese by Department of Defense guidance, the policy dialogue system. These military-to-military communications at the highest level are critical to the security of the United States in order to deconflict military situations, manage crises, and prevent wars between great powers that are armed with the world’s deadliest weapons.
“The calls on 30 October and 8 January were coordinated before and after with Secretary [of Defense Mark] Esper, Acting Secretary [of Defense Christopher] Miller’s staff, and the inter-agencies. The specific purpose of the Oct. 30 and Jan. 8 calls [was] generated by concerning intelligence that caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.”
Milley paused at that point, before addressing the committee once again.
“I know and I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it is and was my directed responsibility by the secretary of defense to convey that intent to the Chinese,” he said. “My task at that time was to deescalate, my message again was ‘stay calm, stay steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.'”
Milley’s declaration before the Senate panel on Sept. 28 appears to contradict the account of the calls he made to the Chinese general described by Woodward and Costa in their book.
The headline on the excerpt that appeared on Sept. 14 in The Washington Post declared, “Top General Was So Fearful That Trump Might Spark War That He Made Secret Calls to His Chinese Counterpart, Book Says.”
According to the report, Milley told Gen. Li that he wanted “to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” and that the United States was “not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”
“General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years,” he said, according to the book’s account. “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
During the afternoon portion of the hearing, tensions rose when Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Milley: “Do you think if the Chinese Communist Party decided to invade Taiwan, would their military leadership call and give you a heads-up?”
Milley responded tersely.
“I think there would be a period of increased tension, indications, and warnings, and I think there would be an exchange of various communications at all levels,” Milley said.
But Sullivan interrupted Milley.
“Do you really think the Chinese Communist Party, the head of the PLA, would call and say, ‘Hey, General, we’re getting ready to invade Taiwan, just thought I would give you a heads-up?’ Do you honestly think that?” Sullivan asked.
“I would call him and ask him … I think an invasion of Taiwan would be a fairly obvious thing to pick up on,” Milley said.
Sullivan responded that he believed that if the top general of the PLA called Milley, “he would be shot.”
Sullivan then challenged Milley to explain the apparent discrepancy between his telling the committee earlier in the hearing that he didn’t think Trump had any intention of attacking China and what he was described as saying in the Woodward and Costa book.
“Let me tell you what I actually said,” Milley said. “What I said was, ‘If there’s going to be a war, there will be a lot of calls and tension ahead of time and you’re going to get’ … I was communicating to my Chinese counterpart—on instruction, I might add—to deescalate the situation, and I told him that ‘we are not going to attack. President Trump has no intent to attack.
“‘If there is going to be an attack, your intelligence will probably pick it up. Everybody will be calling you. I will probably call you to tell you we’re not going to attack you. Just settle down, it’s not going to happen.’ And I did it twice.”
“If you’re giving them a heads-up,” Sullivan said, with Milley denying that he did so. But the exchange was terminated by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee chairman.
Milley was then asked point-blank by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) if he would give the PLA head advance warning of a real attack by the United States under any president.
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Milley said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also asked Milley to provide lists of the people who were present during his two calls to Li and copies of the transcripts of what was said. Milley agreed to provide that material.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) released a statement to reporters during the hearing.
“General Mark Milley spent hours with journalists spinning his egotistical self-promotion instead of doing his job,” she said in the statement.
Milley denied that he leaked information to journalists.
The committee’s Democratic members didn’t step in to defend Milley regarding the calls to China during the hearing.