Several Trump White House officials told me they were not informed about Esper’s and Milley’s calls to Chinese military officials. Trump has also said that he didn’t know and was never planning to attack China. In those final months, Trump’s National Security Council was coordinating many various China-related activities, including rolling out new sanctions and delivering tough speeches about the Chinese Communist Party. But Esper and Milley weren’t a part of most of that.
“[The Defense Department] was not clued in on some of the key things we were doing on China, so DOD was not in a position to make those decisions without consulting us,” a senior Trump White House official told me.
Communication between the White House and the Pentagon broke down in those final months, a result of mutual distrust following the fallout over June events in Lafayette Square. Esper and Milley had the authority to do what they did. But the White House concern was that they were undermining the White House China team’s messaging and actions vis-a-vis Beijing.
It’s not even clear Beijing really believed Trump was planning an attack. China might have been messaging that concern to test whether the United States would react, which Esper did.