Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was so concerned that Donald Trump’s words and actions might ignite a war with China in the final days of Trump’s administration that he made two secret, previously unreported phone calls to his Chinese counterpart in an effort to avoid armed conflict.
That revelation is contained in a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter Robert Costa. “Peril” is scheduled for release next week.
During those phone calls Milley reportedly assured his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, that the United States would not strike. The first call took place on Oct. 30, 2020, four days before the presidential election in which Joe Biden easily defeated Trump. The second, Woodward and Costa report, took place on Jan. 8, 2021, two days after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The pair report that the October call was prompted by Milley’s review of intelligence that suggested 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, much of which centered around the coronavirus.
“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.”
According to the book, Milley even 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.” Li reportedly took Milley at his word.
In the second call, placed to address Chinese fears about the events of the Jan. 6 riot, Li wasn’t as easily calmed, even after the U.S. general promised him, “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Milley did not tell Trump about the calls. The authors write that he believed the twice-impeached president had suffered a mental decline after the election, 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.