Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley denied any wrongdoing in making two phone calls to China during Trump’s presidency, after Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) grilled him on the subject during an Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.
Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are testifying before the Senate Armed Service Committee Tuesday, marking their first public testimony since the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It’s also the first time Milley is under oath since bombshell reports from new Trump book ‘Peril’ claim he went behind the Trump administration’s back to reach China in fears the ex-president would take rogue action to stay in office, promising his counterpart a heads-up in the event of an imminent attack from the U.S.
During the second half of the contentious hearing, Sullivan confronted Milley on those calls after he already denied wrongdoing in a lengthy opening statement.
‘General Milley, if you think the Chinese Communist Party decided to invade Taiwan, would their military leadership call and give you a heads up?’ Sullivan asked.
Milley said there would likely be a ‘period of increased tension’ followed by ‘an exchange of various communications at all levels.’
Sullivan cut him off, asking again if the general thought the head of China’s military would warn him of an attack on Taiwan.
‘I would call him and ask him outright,’ Milley answered.
Senator Dan Sullivan grilled Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley on allegations he called his Chinese counterparts behind Trump’s back
He added, ‘I think an invasion of Taiwan would be a fairly obvious thing to pick up on, and there would be a lot of communication back and forth.’
The Alaska lawmaker countered, ‘I think the answer to that is no.’
He continued, ‘I think if the head of the [Chinese military] called you and said “Hey, we’re getting ready to invade Taiwan” and Xi Jinping found out about it, he’d be shot.’
The chairman also denied giving China a ‘heads up’ because he claimed to be ‘certain’ Trump wouldn’t attack.
‘I was communicating to my Chinese counterpart – on instructions, by the way – to deescalate the situation. And I told him that we are not going to attack. President Trump has no intent to attack, and I told him that repeatedly, and I told him if there was going to be an attack, there will be plenty of communications going back and forth, your Intel system will pick it up.
‘I said, I’ll probably call you. Everybody will call you. We’re not going to attack you, just settle down, it is not going to happen. I did it twice, in October and January.’
Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) also asked Milley about the calls. Milley told her he never discussed them with former President Trump himself.
The GOP lawmaker accused Milley of leaking information to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, the two authors of ‘Peril.’
Milley acknowledged speaking to Bob Woodward before it was published, but denied he ‘leaked’ anything.
Some U.S. lawmakers have said Milley overstepped his authority, and they have called for President Joe Biden to fire him. Trump blasted Milley as treasonous, called him ‘a complete nutjob’ and said Milley ‘never told me about calls being made to China.’
General Mark Milley is speaking before a Senate panel on Tuesday for the first time since allegations from ‘Peril’ claimed he called China behind Trump’s back
Milley denies wrongdoing in opening statement
In his opening statement, Milley claimed people within the ex-president’s inner circle were made aware of the call near-immediately after.
The embattled general acknowledged he spoke to General Li Zuocheng in Beijing on October 30 and January 8.
‘With respect to the Chinese calls, I routinely communicated with my counterpart General Li with the knowledge and coordination of civilian oversight,’ Milley said.
He said the calls are part of his job and that such military-to-military communications are critical to prevent war between great powers that possess nuclear weapons.
‘The calls on 30 October and 8 January were coordinated before and after with Secretary Esper and Acting Secretary Miller’s staffs and the interagency. The specific purpose of the October and January calls were generated by concerning intelligence, which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States,’ Milley said.
‘I know, I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it is my directed responsibility and it is my directed responsibility – and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary – to convey that intent to the Chinese.’
He added, ‘My task at that time was to de-escalate.’
Milley said he told as much to Beijing during both calls.
‘My message again, was consistent: Stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you,’ he said.
Milley said the first call, days before the 2020 election, was made at then-Defense Secretary Esper’s direction. Eight people sat in on the call on Milley’s side and he said he ‘read out the call within 30 minutes of the call ending.’
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Li Zuocheng (L) and US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley (C) review an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing
‘On 31 December, the Chinese requested another call with me,’ Milley said.
He claimed the call was coordinated by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Policy.
Milley also said he informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows after the call took place.
‘Soon after that, I attended a meeting with Acting Secretary Miller and briefed him on the call,’ the general said.
Milley admitted to making the calls in a statement earlier this month but claimed they were ‘routine’ and done with the Pentagon’s knowledge. However, Miller told Fox News soon after that he wasn’t aware of the calls.
Miller’s Chief of Staff Kash Patel said then that Milley broke the chain of command – which Milley’s Tuesday statement contradicts.
Milley disputes agreed with Pelosi that Trump is ‘crazy’
‘Later that same day on 8 January, Speaker of the House Pelosi called me to inquire about the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons,’ Milley continued, referencing another allegation made in ‘Peril.’
Citing a call transcript, authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa claimed Pelosi told Milley, ‘He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time. So don’t say you don’t know what his state of mind is.’
Milley responded, according to the book: ‘ Madam Speaker. I agree with you on everything.’
Trump lambasted Milley after the allegations in ‘Peril’ surfaced and accused the general of committing treason
According to the transcript, she asked him ‘what precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?’
On Tuesday, however, Milley gave a slightly different account.
‘I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process. She was concerned and made various personal references characterizing the president,’ he told Senators.
‘I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority and he doesn’t launch them alone. And that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the President of the United States.
‘I repeatedly assured her there was no chance of an illegal, unauthorized or accidental launch.’
He said that after the call was over, he had a short meeting with staff to go over the process. He also said he informed Miller of the call at the time.
‘At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself in the chain of command,’ Milley said under oath.
He offered up relevant phone logs, witnesses, emails or other information he said Senators need to ‘understand these events.’
He and Austin are scheduled to next testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday in a second and likely tumultuous hearing on the U.S. Afghanistan withdrawal.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command oversaw the withdrawal, is testifying as well.
Biden’s credibility ‘damaged’ by Afghanistan exit
Speaking to senators on the crisis in the conflict-ridden country, Milley told them the country’s credibility was ‘damaged’ by President Biden’s chaotic exit.
Milley said his view had long been that leaving the country, without meeting specific conditions, would likely lead to the collapse of the Afghan armed forces and government.
He told lawmakers: ‘In the fall of 2020, my analysis was that an accelerated withdrawal without meeting specific and necessary conditions risks losing the substantial gains made in Afghanistan, damaging US worldwide credibility, and could precipitate a general collapse of the Afghan government, resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war.
‘That was a year ago, my assessment remained consistent throughout.’
Some 3,500 U.S. troops were in the country when President Biden was inaugurated.
Milley is testifying under oath alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie
‘I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world, and with adversaries, is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go,’ said Milley. ‘And I think that damage is one word that could be used,
Senators on the Armed Services Committee also heard warnings that the country could still present a terrorist threat to American soil.
McKenzie said he recommended keeping 4,500 troops in Afghanistan over fears the government in Kabul would not survive.
‘And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we will maintain 4500 of that time, those are my personal views,’ he said.
‘I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces, and eventually the Afghan government.’
Austin says Afghan army ‘melted away’ against Taliban
For his part, Austin defended the military’s execution of the chaotic Kabul airlift but blamed the fall of Kabul on the Afghan army’s sudden collapse.
‘To be clear, those first two days were difficult,’ he said.
‘We all watched with alarm the images of Afghans rushing the runway and our aircraft.
‘We all remember the scenes of confusion outside the airport. But within 48 hours, our troops restored order, and process began to take hold.’
Despite 20 years of U.S. presence in the country, he admitted that Washington failed to ‘forge a nation’ that could stand on its own feet.
‘The fact that the Afghan army – that we and our partners trained – simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot, took us all by surprise and it would be dishonest to claim otherwise,’ he said.
‘We need to consider some uncomfortable truths that we didn’t fully comprehend: The depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks that we didn’t grasp; the damaging effect of the frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders; that we didn’t anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement; and that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers.’
Austin defended the military’s execution of the chaotic Kabul airlift but blamed the fall of Kabul on the Afghan army’s sudden collapse
Terrorist threat against U.S. soil
Biden has repeatedly declared that the degradation of Al Qaeda meant the original mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had been completed.
But senators were told that the Taliban remained a terrorist organization and had never broken its ties with Al Qaeda.
‘I have no illusions who we are dealing with, said Milley during his opening statement.
‘It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will further fracture into civil war. But we must continue to protect the United States of America and it people from terrorist attacks coming from Afghanistan.
‘A reconstituted Al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility.’
Milley calls Afghanistan withdrawal a ‘strategic failure’
The Biden administration has gone to great lengths to tout its military withdrawal from Afghanistan as an ‘extraordinary success’ despite bipartisan criticism over the hasty exit.
‘It was a logistical success, but a strategic failure,’ Milley said. ‘And I think those are two different terms.’
At another point in the hearing he repeated the same criticism to Senator Joe Manchin, but added that the outcome wasn’t determined ‘in the last five days or the last 20 days or the last year’ of a U.S. presence in Kabul.
‘Outcomes in a war like this, an outcome that is a strategic failure – the enemy is in charge in Kabul, there is no way else to describe that – that outcome is a cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days. And there are a huge amount of strategic, operational and tactical lessons that need to be learned from this,’ Milley said.
One of the areas that need to be examined, he explained, is the two decades spent building up Afghanistan’s military.
‘Another is the intel. How did we miss the collapse of an army and government that big, that fast, in only 11 days? That needs to be pulled apart.
‘And there are other factors that are not strictly military. Things like legitimacy of the government, corruption, the parasitic nature of the police forces. There’s a whole series of 10 or 20 I wrote down just a week or two that need to be looked at.’
Milley, Austin and McKenzie face Senate grilling
The leaders are expected to face sharp questions from lawmakers about the chaotic pullout and whether they anticipated the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country – in advance of the U.S.’s August 30 withdrawal date.
Republicans in particular have intensified their attacks on President Joe Biden´s decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of last month, saying it left the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism.
They are demanding more details on the suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 13 American service members in the final days of the withdrawal.
Although Tuesday’s hearing was scheduled to focus on Afghanistan, other topics will likely come up, including Milley’s actions during the final months of Trump’s presidency.
Some in Congress have accused Milley of disloyalty for what the book ‘Peril,’ by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, reported as assurances to a Chinese general that the U.S. had no plan to attack China, and that if it did, Milley would warn him in advance.
Milley took a series of extraordinary actions after the Jan. 6th Capitol riot because he was concerned an ‘unstable’ Trump might undertake military action in a desperate bid to stay in office, the book claims.
The efforts included Milley as the top ranking military officer meeting with top military officials in the Pentagon two days after the MAGA riot and telling them to keep him in the process for all military actions, including the use of nuclear weapons.
It also involved outreach to Milley’s counterpart in the Chinese military to provide reassurances the US would not strike its rival, according to the book.
Gen. Frank McKenzie (pictured), who as head of Central Command, oversaw the withdrawal as well as an Aug. 29 drone strike that he later called a tragic mistake
The Senate committee’s ranking Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has peppered the Pentagon with a lengthy list of questions about multiple aspects of the withdrawal, including the suicide bombing on Aug. 26 at Kabul’s international airport that killed 169 Afghans in addition to the American service members.
He also is demanding information about decision-making over the summer as it became apparent that the Taliban were overwhelming U.S.-backed Afghan forces.
‘We need a full accounting of every factor and decision that led us to where we are today and a real plan for defending America moving forward,’ Inhofe wrote last week.
The withdrawal ended the longest war in U.S. history.
The Biden administration, and some Democrats in Congress, have argued that former President Donald Trump bears some of the blame for the war ending in a Taliban victory, since his administration signed a deal with the Taliban in 2020 that promised a full American withdrawal by May 2021.
They also have pointed to a yearslong U.S. failure to build an Afghan military that could stand up to the Taliban.
‘This is not a Democratic or a Republican problem. These failures have been manifesting over four presidential administrations of both political parties,’ Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the day after the Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15.
Afghan refugees are packed onto a C-19 Globemaster III military aircraft during last month’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan
This image from August 26 shows the chaotic scene outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport
In the days following news accounts of the book’s reporting, Milley declined to comment in detail, instead telling reporters that he would lay out his answers directly to Congress.
His only comments have been that the calls with the Chinese were routine and within the duties and responsibilities of his job.
Both Milley and Austin have defended the U.S. military’s execution of an Afghanistan withdrawal that Biden ordered in April.
The pullout was largely completed by early July, but several hundred troops were kept in Kabul, along with some defensive equipment, to protect a U.S. diplomatic presence in the capital.
The State Department initially said the diplomats would remain after the military withdrawal was completed by Aug. 31, but when the Afghan forces collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leaving the Taliban in charge, a frantic evacuation began.
The Pentagon has defended its execution of an airlift from Kabul airport that transported more than 120,000 people, while acknowledging that it got off to a chaotic start and was under near-constant threat of terrorist attack.
‘The Biden administration´s avalanche of incompetence has damaged our international reputation and humiliated the United States on the world stage,’ Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, both Republicans, wrote in the Des Moines Register. ‘Yet, our president and secretary of state continue to pretend that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a historic success.’
Cotton and others have questioned the viability of U.S. plans to contain al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate by using intelligence-collection assets and attack planes based outside of Afghanistan.