Republican lawmakers are demanding a full investigation into whether Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley undermined civilian control of the military with moves he made to guard against erratic decisions by Donald Trump in the waning days of his presidency.
But in a statement from his spokesman, Milley denied wrongdoing, saying that his actions were legal and in keeping with the duties of his position.
“General Milley continues to act and advise within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military and his oath to the Constitution,” Army Col. David Butler, Milley’s spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
The allegations, detailed in a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa due out next week, include Milley telling senior military officials to clear any military strike decisions by Trump with him, and conversations with senior Chinese military officials to calm their concerns about a possible attack ordered by Trump.
On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called for Milley’s resignation over the accusations, saying the moves suggest the senior military leader “worked to actively undermine the sitting commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces” and amounted to treason.
“Gen. Milley has attempted to rationalize his reckless behavior by arguing that what he perceived as the military’s judgement was more stable than its civilian commander,” Rubio wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden.
“It is a dangerous precedent that could be asserted at any point in the future by Gen. Milley or others. It threatens to tear apart our nation’s longstanding principle of civilian control of the military.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called the book’s revelations “deeply concerning” and said Milley must publicly respond to the charges.
“Our constitution embeds civilian control of the military, and if the chairman of the joint chiefs was actively undermining the commander in chief and pledging to our enemies to defy his own commander, that is completely inconsistent with his responsibilities,” he said.
At least nine House Republicans called for Milley to step down in response to the new information, although several of them had already called for his resignation for issues related to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
In a statement, Trump derided Milley as a “dumbass” and suggested that Milley should be tried for treason. But he also attacked the book as “fiction, not fact” and said he “never thought of attacking China” while in office.
Milley’s spokesman said the actions being criticized by Republican lawmakers and Trump were neither illegal nor unusual.
“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia,” Butler said, explaining Milley’s actions as reported in the book. “These conversations remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict.”
His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January, said Butler, “were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability. All calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency.”
Milley, in keeping with “his responsibilities as senior military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense...frequently conducts meetings with uniformed leaders across the Services to ensure all leaders are aware of current issues,” Butler said. “The meeting regarding nuclear weapons protocols was to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject.”
During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, White House spokesowman Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden “has complete confidence” in Milley’s “leadership, his patriotism and his fidelity to our Constitution.”
The book, titled “Peril,” is set for public release next week and chronicles the final days of the Trump presidency.
According to excerpts released by CNN, in the days after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building by pro-Trump supporters, Milley told senior military leaders that Trump had gone into “serious mental decline” after losing his re-election bid and was overfocused on “endless election conspiracies.”
He also called an emergency meeting to review the process to launch new military action, to include the launch of nuclear weapons. ”No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure,” Milley told the officers, according to the excerpt.
The book also alleges that Milley made phone calls to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, that the United States was not planning a surprise attack on China, amid worries by leaders there that Trump’s instability could lead to a military strike.
Fox News reported on Wednesday that Pentagon leaders characterized those calls as routine interactions with Chinese military leaders, and not emergency, secret meetings.
Congressional Democrats downplayed the allegations. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and the second-ranking party leader in the chamber, said the book revelations were more about wrongdoings by Trump than Milley.
“It is breathtaking to think of the lengths Gen. Milley and others went to avert the disasters Trump was creating at the end of his presidency,” he said. “It is a shame that you reached a point in America’s history where that was necessary. And I think [Milley] did the responsible thing to keep America out of war.”
Senate Armed Service Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., stopped short of his Republican colleagues’ demands for Milley’s resignation, saying that he wants a further explanation from Milley before taking a stance on his future.
Milley is scheduled to testify before Inhofe’s committee on Sept. 28 on the Afghanistan withdrawal.
When asked if the book would be a topic of questioning among panel members, Inhofe said “I can’t think of anything we won’t be talking about when he comes before the committee.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.