IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Gen. Milley's China debacle, and how Trump revealed the cracks in an antiquated system

When it comes to our most fearsome weapons, America's deterrence protocols may need an update.
Image: Mark Milley, Defense Chiefs Testify On Department Of Defense 2022 Budget
Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, listens during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 2021.Caroline Brehman / CQ Roll Call/Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Republican lawmakers have called for an investigation — or the resignation — of Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, following revelations in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril.” The authors describe Milley's increasing alarm over then-President Donald Trump’s mental stability. According to the book, Milley believed Trump might precipitate a nuclear conflict to remain in office after the 2020 election, concern that resulted in actions that are perhaps unparalleled.

It is important, first of all, to remember that Woodward and Costa’s methods make it impossible to judge the accuracy of these alleged conversations.

It is important, first of all, to remember that Woodward and Costa’s methods make it impossible to judge the accuracy of these alleged conversations. But the bombshell reporting clearly raises serious questions. Did Milley exceed his responsibilities as the country’s leading military officer, undermine the powers of the president and set a dangerous precedent for American civil-military relations? What does this also tell us about crisis management and our nuclear weapons safeguards?

Milley made two phone calls in the waning months of the Trump administration to Gen. Li Zuocheng, the commanding general of the Chinese military. The first occurred Oct. 30, four days before the election. Woodward and Costa relate that Milley sought to reassure his counterpart in Beijing that the U.S. would not launch a surprise nuclear attack. Milley is reported to have told Li that he would contact him if an attack by the U.S. was imminent. Milley reached out a second time in the aftermath of the assault on the U.S. Capitol to reassure the Chinese that the U.S. government remained stable. Milley reportedly told Li that “democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”

Milley has argued that these calls were “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his job. And indeed, it is routine for U.S. government officials to speak with their counterparts — allies as well as potential adversaries — on a regular basis. I can personally testify to this based on my own experience working in the White House during a crisis.

Milley’s aides have maintained that such contact is invaluable during a presidential transition. At such moments (even if they occur peacefully), leaders around the world are concerned about instability and the possibility that any crisis might rapidly escalate. And to be fair, these calls occurred at time when tensions between the U.S. and China were rising over military exercises in the South China Sea, as well as Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward Beijing. Milley subsequently contacted the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and recommended postponing impending military exercises in the eastern Pacific.

“Peril” also includes new details from a previously reported conversation between Milley and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in January. Pelosi, who questioned the chairman about any safeguards that might prevent Trump from initiating a nuclear attack, described the president as “crazy" — an assessment Milley reportedly agreed with. Pelosi is not the only one who shared Milley’s concerns. So, apparently, was CIA Director Gina Haspel. Indeed, many former members of the Trump leadership team have spoken out about his poor leadership and character over the past several years. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that under Trump the nation lacked “mature leadership”;former White House chief of staff John Kelly agreed.

Trump selected Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2019 over the objections of Mattis. But he publicly pushed back against Trump on several occasions, as when he and the other service chiefs publicly denounced racism after the right-wing demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and when he publicly apologized for walking with Trump across Lafayette Square during anti-racist protests. Milley and the other chiefs also issued a message to the U.S. military denouncing the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

Milley’s immediate concerns about Trump’s mental stability and impulsiveness were further exacerbated by the firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and several other senior Pentagon officials in November. (They were replaced by Trump loyalists who were both unconfirmed and likely unconfirmable.) After the election, Milley held a secret meeting of the country’s senior military leaders in the Pentagon. Milley reminded them to follow specific procedures and to ensure that nuclear launch control officers checked with him first if an order were ever issued. This is both startling and terrifying. It may also reveal a flawed system.

During the Cold War, the U.S. established procedures giving the president sole authority to order a nuclear attack. This was done to enhance global deterrence — the president would have the ability to launch our deadliest weapons quickly if we were ever under attack. In accordance with that existing process, Trump retained the authority to launch an attack until President Joe Biden was formally inaugurated on Jan. 20.

The president may choose to consult with senior advisers, such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, before launching nuclear weapons — but is not required to do so.

The president may choose to consult with senior advisers, such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, before launching nuclear weapons — but is not required to do so. This means that last year, Milley could only have advised Trump against an attack if such a scenario ever arose and urge appropriate military officers to follow “legal orders.” Legislation to restrict the first use of nuclear weapons and presidential authority has been proposed, but it has garnered little support.

Defense Department directives for those allowed access to nuclear weapons, codes and procedures are extremely restrictive. The reasons someone can be disqualified from nuclear duties are described by the Department of Defense. They include evidence of "sexual misconduct and financial irresponsibility,” as well as aberrant behavior like arrogance, inflexibility, suspiciousness, impulsiveness or mood swings. While these regulations apply to military officers and Defense Department civilians, they do not apply to presidents.

The West Point motto of “Duty, Honor, Country” has been adopted over the years by many in the U.S. officer corps. Milley’s actions were possibly unprecedented. Some find them controversial and even traitorous. Still, his actions appear honorable. He was not motivated by personal gain. He performed his assigned duties as the country’s most senior military officer at a critical moment, and his actions were designed to protect the country, and the world, from a possible catastrophe.

The general’s actions have strained important civil-military precedent, and that trust will need to be repaired. But they have also revealed the ripple effects of a president desperate to stay in office. Perhaps most important, when it comes to who has final control over our most fearsome weapons, this debacle reveals the downsides of an antiquated system that may well need an update — sooner rather than later.