Donald Trump’s erratic behavior in the final months of his presidency sparked fears at the Pentagon that he would initiate a war with China to extend his time in office, according to ‘Peril’ a forthcoming book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was so concerned by what he perceived as Trump’s declining mental state and desperate need to stay in office, that he twice reached out to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, to assure him that the U.S. was stable and had no intention of starting an armed conflict.
The Washington Post reports:
The first call [on October 29th, four days before the election] was prompted by Milley’s review of intelligence suggesting the Chinese believed the United States was preparing to attack. That belief, the authors write, was based on tensions over military exercises in the South China Sea, and deepened by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward China.
“General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley told him. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”
Li apparently trusted Milley, but he and other Chinese leaders grew increasingly concerned after the January 6th riots at the U.S. Capitol. Once again, Milley reached out to avoid a conflict. According to The Post:
In the second call, placed to address Chinese fears about the events of Jan. 6, Li wasn’t as easily assuaged, even after Milley promised him, “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
In a gesture of good faith, Milley told the U.S. admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to delay training exercises that might raise Chinese alarms.
Milley wasn’t the only senior U.S. official to worry that Trump might manufacture a military crisis to prolong his White House tenure. On January 8th, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Milley to ask “What precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?”
Milley assured her that there were “a lot of checks in the system.” He agreed with Pelosi’s assessment that Trump’s mental state was declining, according to ‘Peril.’
“He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. … He’s crazy and what he did yesterday is further evidence of his craziness,” she said. Milley replied, “I agree with you on everything.”
Milley then reached out to senior U.S. military officials tasked with overseeing the nuclear program and reminded them that he must be involved in any nuclear launch.
More from The Post:
Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood, the authors write, in what he considered an “oath.”
The chairman knew that he was “pulling a Schlesinger,” the authors write, resorting to measures resembling the ones taken in August 1974 by James R. Schlesinger, the secretary of defense at the time. Schlesinger told military officials to check with him and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs before carrying out orders from President Richard M. Nixon, who was facing impeachment at the time.
Milley’s efforts to thwart what he called a “‘Wag the Dog’ scenario overseas,” reflect a distrust of Trump that was shared by CIA Director Gina Haspel. After a November meeting with Trump in which he expressed curiosity about attacking Iran, Haspel reached out to Milley and said, “This is a highly dangerous situation. We are going to lash out for his ego?”
Later, when The Big Lie was gaining momentum and Trump was pressuring officials to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election, Haspel reportedly told Milley, “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.”
‘Peril’ also provides new insights into then-Vice President Mike Pence’s state of mind as he contemplated whether he should certify the presidential results in accordance with the law, or reject them at Trump’s request. The Post provides the details:
In late December, the [‘Peril’] authors reveal, Pence called Dan Quayle, a former vice president and fellow Indiana Republican, for advice.
Quayle was adamant, according to the authors. “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away,” he said.
But Pence pressed him, the authors write, asking if there were any grounds to pause the certification because of ongoing legal challenges. Quayle was unmoved, and Pence ultimately agreed, according to the book.
“I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this,” Trump had told Pence, according to the book, later adding, “You’ve betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing.”