In this post, I argued against a defense of Gen. Mark Milley’s reassurances to China, in the waning days of the Trump administration, that’s based on his apparent collaboration with the Defense Department. If Milley made improper statements to Chinese military officials, it doesn’t matter that high-ranking DOD officials were in the loop.
I also argued that, in all likelihood, Milley did make improper statements to the Chinese. Even before the events of January 6, China apparently wanted assurances that Trump would not lash out against it due to his frustration with the election. Much of official Washington shared this concern or pretended to.
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa report that when Milley spoke to his Chinese counterpart on January 8, he provided assurances, and this aspect of their report seems undisputed. Given the way Milley and China apparently viewed Trump, it stands to reason that, as Woodward and Costa also say, such assurances included a promise, or at least an indication, that Milley would give China a heads-up, if it came to that.
David Ignatius of the Washington Post seems to understand all of this. He acknowledges:
Milley’s efforts [with China]. . .took him into dangerous constitutional terrain that no soldier should have to patrol, edging close to violating the sacrosanct principle of civilian control of the military.
Ignatius, an apologist, if not an unofficial spokesman, for the deep state, avoids saying that Milley, in fact, violated this sacrosanct principle. Perhaps that’s the right line, since we don’t know for sure what Milley said to his counterpart. However, if he said, in essence, what Woodward and Costa report, he surely crossed the line.
Indeed, Ignatius continues:
In curbing the unilateral power of a reckless commander in chief, did [Milley and other like-minded] violate the Constitution? None of them were (sic) elected, after all, unlike Trump.
When I asked a member of this. . .group to go on the record five months ago, he refused. “This is an ugly story,” he said. It shouldn’t happen in our democracy.
No, it shouldn’t.
However, Ignatius is unwilling to condemn Milley. Instead, he reverts to what I’ve called the original defense of Milley — that the general’s violation was justified “because Trump.” He writes:
Milley is a target right now. But even as we underline the proper limits on the role of military leaders, we should remember that this problem began with a lawless president who threatened to politicize the military — to the point that the top-ranking general decided to fight back to fulfill what he saw as his paramount duty, to safeguard his country.
There are at least three good objections to this passage. First, if there was a problem, it began with the election of the “lawless” president by the American people. In “our democracy,” the military has no “duty” to “fight back” against the president Americans choose to lead them.
Second, Milley wasn’t fighting back against lawlessness. Trump did nothing unlawful during the period of time in which, it appears, Milley lawlessly assured the Chinese he would help thwart any attack the president ordered. And even if one thinks Trump acted unlawfully by encouraging the January 6 protest, promising to give the Chinese a leg up in a war with the U.S. is not fighting back against the Capitol protest or Trump’s role, whatever it was, in that event.
Third, the concern that Trump would attack China due to frustration with the election was absurd. This is a case of a not-terribly-bright general believing his own BS — or perhaps more accurately, the BS being peddled by establishment figures including Nancy Pelosi and anti-Trump journalists — while convincing himself that he was some kind of savior.
Nothing in Trump’s presidency suggests that he would attack a country with China’s military capability. Throughout his time in office, Trump was less aggressive militarily than any of his four immediate predecessors.
If Trump was going to attack any nation, it likely would have been Iran. But there is no indication that he ever seriously considered doing that.
To be sure, the 2020 election left Trump in a terrible mood. But Trump was also in a terrible mood when he was being impeached for tying (for a short while) U.S. assistance to Ukraine to that government’s willingness to help him discredit Joe and Hunter Biden.
That frustration did not cause Trump to use military force, much less to attack Red China. Contrast this with Bill Clinton who, in a fit of anger over developments in the Lewinski scandal, launched attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan — a rare sign of life from Clinton when it came to trying to counter terrorism.
I have never tried to disguise my view that Trump is seriously flawed. But that didn’t make him a threat to world peace.
Trump’s opponents tried, for cynical purposes, to conflate these two things. In doing so, it seems like they suckered Gen. Milley into what Ignatius diplomatically calls “dangerous constitutional terrain.”