Former President Donald Trump’s top military advisor made secret calls to a top Chinese official late last year, worried that China’s fears over the erratic U.S. leader would touch off an armed conflict between two nuclear superpowers. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, did not tell Trump about the calls, which were made to assuage Chinese fears that the United States would launch an attack. These calls are detailed in a new book, Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
The book details how Milley twice called Gen. Li Zuocheng, a top-ranking general in the People’s Liberation Army, to promise that the U.S. would not launch a strike. The first call came days before the 2020 presidential election on Oct. 30th, 2020. After reading an intelligence review that said China believed the American military was planning an attack, Milley picked up the phone.
China’s fears of war came amid Trump’s escalating threats, as well as their fear that Trump would start a crisis between the two countries so he could paint himself as a hero who solved it — part of a last-ditch effort to win reelection from Trump as he trailed in the polls. “General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley said on the call. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”
Milley also gave Li an assurance he would give a heads-up if an attack ever were to take place. “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years,” Milley said. “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
According to the book, Li took Milley at his word.
Milley believed another call was necessary by January 8th, 2021, with less than two weeks remaining in the Trump administration. This call came just two days after the insurrection at the Capitol. “We are 100 percent steady,” Milley reassured Li, who believed Trump’s mental state was worsening following the election. “Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
But Milley’s concerns pushed him to do more than just calm Li. According to the book, Milley even called a meeting of senior officers to go over the formal procedures for launching nuclear weapons. While the president has the authority to give the order, Milley reminded the officers that he himself needed to be involved. “No matter what you’re told, you do the procedure. You do the process,” he said. “And I’m part of that procedure. You’ve got to make sure that the right people are on the net.”
In fact, Milley was so worried about a nuclear attack, he looked each of the officers in the eye and asked them to indicate their agreement, which Milley took as each swearing an “oath.”
The authors also referenced a transcript of a phone call between Milley and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during which Milley told the speaker he agreed with her that Trump’s mental status was unstable.
“What I’m saying to you is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do?” Pelosi said. “And is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”
Pelosi added, “You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time.”
“Madam Speaker,” Milley said, “I agree with you on everything.”