Last week, Bob Woodward alleged that in the waning days of the Trump administration, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, that the United States would not strike China or its interests. According to Woodward and his co-author Robert Costa, Milley went so far as to pledge he would alert China in the event of a U.S. attack. Woodward and Costa claim that Milley said:
General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.
Milley has not addressed these allegations directly. His spokesperson has said:
His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with [his] duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.
That’s not a denial.
The spokesperson also said that Milley meets regularly with civilian leaders and acts “within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military.” This statement appears to be the emerging defense of Milley being pushed by Deep State sources.
That defense is that, in talking with the leader of China’s military, Milley didn’t “go rogue.” Rather, Milley acted in consultation and coordination with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Is this a good defense? Not necessarily.
Consider a hypothetical scenario in which Milley, acting in conjunction with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, gave top secret information to the Chinese. It would be no defense of Milley to say that the Secretary of Defense’s team was in the loop. All this would mean is that others, in addition to Milley, were guilty of treason.
Woodward and Costa don’t allege that Milley gave top secret information to the Chinese. But they do say he promised to inform them in advance if the commander-in-chief ordered a surprise attack on China. That’s bad enough, and if Milley did this it shouldn’t be a defense to say the Defense Secretary’s team was also involved.
Now, Woodward may not be a reliable reporter and the same can be said about Costa, an inveterate anti-Trumper. But there’s no dispute that Milley said something to the Chinese military leader on January 8 of this year. Let’s consider what he might have said that would be innocent, and then ask whether that scenario is more plausible than the one Woodward and Costa allege.
Milley might have told the Chinese something along the lines of not to worry about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election because “the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay.” In fact, that’s exactly what Woodward and Costa say Milley did tell the Chinese in late October 2020.
Such an assurance — “we’re okay here in the U.S.” — would not be problematic in my opinion. It would, as Milley’s spokesperson says, be consistent with assuring strategic stability.
But Woodward says that Milley went much further in early January, two days after the riot at the Capitol. That’s when, allegedly, Milley promised to warn China of any sneak attack Donald Trump might launch.
So which is more plausible, (1) that Milley would tell China, “Don’t worry, all is stable in this administration” or (2) that Milley would tell China, “Don’t worry, things may be crazy here but I’ll make sure you know if Trump is about to do anything crazy against you”?
I think something along the lines of (2) is far more plausible because it’s consistent with the view that much of official Washington, including many in the Deep State, had of Trump. By January 8, Milley and his friends in the Defense Department probably did not believe that Trump was stable. By then, mainstream Washington viewed him as unhinged by the result of the presidential election (if not before).
Therefore, I doubt Milley believed on January 8, two days after the Trump-inspired attack on “our democracy,” that “the American government is stable.” He very likely believed, as many anti-Trumpers did, that there was a chance that Trump’s wrath, which incited a riot at the Capitol in the standard Washington view, would spill over into foreign affairs, perhaps in the form of an attack on one of our adversaries.
It follows, I think, that when Milley spoke with his Chinese counterpart in the aftermath of the January 6 events, it’s considerably more likely that he said something along the lines of what Woodward has reported than something innocent along the lines of what he reportedly told the Chinese back in late October.
And, again, if Milley did say something along the lines of what Woodward has reported, it should be no defense that he acted in concert with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
There’s a third possibility, though. Milley might have used largely innocent words with the intent of conveying the guilty ones Woodward ascribes to him. For example, he might have assured China, “don’t worry, we’ve got this under control.” In this scenario, he stops short of explicitly promising to alert China to a sneak attack. And by saying “we,” he leaves room for interpretation as to who will do what.
I don’t know whether Milley would operate in this fashion. Given the language barrier, I would expect him to deliver important assurances to China in clear, direct language. But who knows?
If the Republicans gain control of one or both chambers of Congress, I think it will be worthwhile to investigate Woodward’s allegations. They are plausible enough to warrant further examination, and certainly damning enough.