Sources tell Politico: Milley got defense secretary's approval before calling Chinese general

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Read this post if you haven’t already for background. Bob Woodward’s new book claims that Milley secretly made two calls to China’s top general, the first on October 30 and the second on January 8, two days after the insurrection. Both calls were allegedly aimed at reassuring the Chinese that the intelligence they had about a surprise U.S. attack was unfounded and that, despite Trump’s attempt to cling to power, the United States government was stable. Supposedly Milley also assured the general that if Trump gave an order to attack China, Milley would make sure that China knew about it — i.e. there’d be no U.S. ambush, therefore China shouldn’t do anything reckless to try to “preempt” one.


If all of that’s true then Milley is guilty of two grave derelictions of duty, promising to disclose classified info to an enemy about an impending attack and conducting diplomacy with a foreign power outside the chain of command, unbeknownst to his civilian superiors.

But is Woodward’s account accurate? Two news outlets, Axios and Josh Rogin of WaPo, claim that it was defense secretary Mark Esper rather than Milley who initiated the back-channel reassurances to China last October. Milley’s call was just a follow-up to Esper’s own outreach to Beijing to avert any military misunderstandings. But what about the January 8 call? Chris Miller was acting defense secretary by that point, not Esper. Did he also order, or at least know of, Milley’s communication with the Chinese?

According to Politico’s sources, he did. Milley didn’t go around the civilian leadership with that phone call either.

A defense official familiar with the calls said that description is “grossly mischaracterized.”

The official said the calls were not out of the ordinary, and the chairman was not frantically trying to reassure his counterpart.

The people also said that Milley did not go rogue in placing the call, as the book suggests. In fact, Milley asked permission from acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller before making the call, said one former senior defense official, who was in the room for the meeting. Milley also briefed the secretary’s office after the call, the former official said.

“We discussed beforehand and after his call with his Chinese counterpart,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.


Is that true? Was the civilian chain of command in the loop for the January 8 call too?

The obvious person to ask is Chris Miller, so Politico did. Miller told them that Milley “almost certainly told him he was going to call his Chinese counterpart” but he didn’t recall being briefed on what was said afterward. (Wouldn’t Miller have asked Milley what transpired during a call with China’s top military official two days after the Capitol was attacked?) Miller thinks there may have been a “perfunctory” exchange between him and Milley about coordinating messages that day. But he added that if it’s true that Milley was freelancing diplomatically and promising the Chinese a heads-up if an attack was impending, that would be “completely inappropriate and completely contrary to civilian oversight of the military…”

Fox News also interviewed Miller today about Woodward’s allegations and found him more emphatic than Politico did. Miller claimed that he “did not and would not ever authorize” a secret call between Milley and China’s general and that, if it happened the way Woodward claims, it’s a “disgraceful and unprecedented act of insubordination.” But Fox’s own sources are telling them that it didn’t happen the way Woodward claimed:


Fox News spoke with multiple individuals who were in the room during the two phone calls Milley had with Li. The calls, in October, were coordinated with then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s office.

“They were not secret,” a U.S. official told Fox News about the calls, which took place over video teleconference.

Fox News has learned there were about 15 people present for the calls. Sources told Fox News that there were multiple notetakers present, and said the calls were both conducted with full knowledge of then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller—something Miller denied.

Lots of possibilities here. Maybe Woodward is right and Fox and Politico are being spun by pro-Milley sources to try to save his job. Or maybe Woodward got it wrong by being too credulous about a sensational claim and it’s actually Team Milley that’s telling the truth here, with Miller lying in order to shift blame for the call with the Chinese general to Milley himself. There’s a third alternative — it could be that Milley told Miller something about his intent to contact the Chinese but didn’t specify what it was about or to whom he’d be speaking, i.e. that he was purposely and deviously vague. One former deputy chief of staff at the Pentagon told Fox that it was “blanket policy at the time not to have high-level engagement with the Chinese on matters like this” and that Miller’s office wasn’t told of any call to the Chinese specifically. “At most,” he said, “they were presented that Milley was calling foreign allies and partners to reassure them.”


So Milley’s to blame, then? Maybe not, per yet another source who spoke to Fox. A U.S. official told the network that “there was full civilian oversight of the phone calls, including a representative of the State Department and Milley’s political adviser” and that a summary was sent to the SecDef and U.S. intelligence. “This was not done like some sort of conspiratorial thing,” he added.

To make the motives here even murkier, Miller himself isn’t always perfectly consistent in his comments about Trump. In March he blamed Trump’s speech at the January 6 rally for the riot that followed but when it came to testify before Congress in May he had inched away from that, pointing to an organized conspiracy by the rioters themselves. Miller also told reporters in January while he was still SecDef that he “cannot wait to leave this job” and later said to Vanity Fair, “My family’s not huge fans of the Trump administration. It’s really bothered my daughters and my wife.”

That is, it’s possible that Miller did authorize Milley to reach out to the Chinese because he shared Milley’s fears that Trump was unstable and that a miscommunication during a moment of instability might lead to war. But maybe Miller would rather let Milley take the rap for that than own up to it, not wanting to be accused of “treason” by every MAGA fan in America the way Milley is right now. Either way, Dan McLaughlin makes a fair point in wondering whether the Woodward news is truly a “Milley problem” or more of an “Esper/Miller problem.” Who was it that decided to cut Trump out of the chain of command because they feared that he’d lost his marbles during the “stop the steal” fiasco? Was it Milley — or was he just acting on the orders of Trump’s own SecDefs? Time for Esper and Miller to testify.


I’ll leave you with Jen Psaki vouching for Milley today. We still don’t know what he said to China’s general about “warning” him if an order to attack was given by Trump.

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