Bob Woodward has written another book, Peril, this time co-authored with Robert Costa and dealing with the last year of Trump’s presidency and its immediate aftermath. It looks like it follows the well-known Woodward formula–great access from lots of sources who mostly speak under the condition of anonymity. We’re at the pre-publication stage now where some of the juiciest tidbits are rolled out so they can dominate news coverage for a few cycles and boost sales.
They’re leading with the revelation that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, was so concerned about the stability of Donald Trump that he twice secretly reached out to Chinese counterparts to reassure them they would not be attacked. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to offer complete confidence, so on the first call, which took place on October 30, 2020, Milley went a step further.
The first call 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.”
In the book’s account, Milley went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack, stressing the rapport they’d established through a backchannel. “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
This is straight out of Dr. Strangelove, the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film where the U.S. president discovers that a rogue Air Force base commander has “gone a little funny in the head” and launched nuclear-armed B-52’s at Soviet Russia. In response, the president, played by Peter Sellers, calls the Soviet premier and offers to help him shoot the planes down before they can deliver their payload.
PRESIDENT MUFFLEY: I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened… It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call…Listen, if it wasn’t friendly… you probably wouldn’t have even got it…
…The [B-52’s] will not reach their targets for at least another hour… I am… I am positive, Dmitri… Listen, I’ve been all over this with your ambassador. It is not a trick… Well, I’ll tell you. We’d like to give your air staff a complete run-down on the targets, the flight plans, and the defensive systems of the planes… Yes! I mean i-i-i-if we’re unable to recall the planes, then… I’d say that, ah… well, ah… we’re just gonna have to help you destroy them, Dmitri… I know they’re our boys… All right, well listen now. Who should we call?… Who should we call, Dmitri?
That was a fictional situation, and in real life on October 30, 2020, the roles were basically reversed. Instead of the president calling an adversary to warn about an attack by a rogue general, a rogue general was calling an adversary to warn about an attack by a president.
I think we have to decide if Gen. Milley should be courtmartialed and perhaps put on trial for treason or if he did the right thing. I don’t think we can just let it pass that the highest military officer in the land offered to forewarn the Chinese about any military action ordered against them. This isn’t something that should be left unsettled.
Personally, I understand what Milley did and why he did it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable from a military point of view. It’s not a precedent that can be left standing. What probably should happen is that there should be a trial and most likely he’d be convicted. Then he could be pardoned.
That would check all the boxes. But maybe it wouldn’t be necessary if Trump were convicted first on charges related to his failed coup. That would firmly establish that Milley was responding to a rogue president whose mental instability was putting the country at grave risk. Truthfully, this would only directly exonerate Milley for the second call he made, which occurred two days after the January 6 insurrection.
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.”
Li remained rattled, and Milley, who did not relay the conversation to Trump, according to the book, understood why. The chairman, 62 at the time and chosen by Trump in 2018, believed the president had suffered a mental decline after the election, the authors write, a view he communicated to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a phone call on Jan. 8. He agreed with her evaluation that Trump was unstable, according to a call transcript obtained by the authors.
Milley was on firmer ground once a coup had already occurred, but if it’s established that he was correct to worry about Trump’s mental stability in the days leading up to the election then that could be considered a heavily mitigating circumstance. But how do we establish that in any kind of legal sense that can serve as a precedent and guide to future commanders?
Only by having a trial for Trump in which he is convicted. This is another example of why the Senate Republicans betrayed the country by acquitting Trump in his second impeachment trial.