The conversation Gen. Milley and Speaker Pelosi had about Trump launching a nuclear strike: 'You know he's crazy' (Update)

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Back on January 8, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she had spoken with Gen. Mark Milley about limiting President Trump’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. Here’s how NPR reported it at the time:

In a letter to her Democratic House colleagues on Friday, Pelosi said that she had spoken with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, about “available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”…

Pelosi later told her caucus she had received assurances that there were safeguards in place, according to a source on the call. It is unclear what those safeguards might be.

The new book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reveals the actual conversation that took place when Pelosi called Milley:

Woodward and Costa exclusively obtained a transcript of the call, during which Milley tried to reassure Pelosi that the nuclear weapons were safe.

Pelosi pushed back.

“What I’m saying to you is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do? And is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”

Pelosi continued, “You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time.”

According to Woodward and Costa, Milley responded, “Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything.”

It was apparently after that call that Milley held a secret meeting at the Pentagon where he asked senior military officers to take an oath that no matter what Trump said, no military action could be taken without his involvement. He literally went around the room to make sure each person agreed. That’s actually not how the system works. As the NPR story I linked above pointed out:

Under current rules, Trump is the only person in the government who can order a nuclear strike.

“The President has sole launch authority, and he does not have to check that with anyone,” says Elaine Scarry, a professor at Harvard University and author of Thermonuclear Monarchy, a book about launch authority.

The authors of “Peril” write that Gen. Milley was “overseeing the mobilization of America’s national security state without the knowledge of the American people or the rest of the world.” They add that “‘some might contend that Milley had overstepped his authority.” It certainly sounds that way.

Of course I don’t want to see a nuclear strike against anyone but given that none was order or even contemplated it seems accurate to say Gen. Milley overstepped his bounds and quite literally took on aspects of the president’s authority as commander-in-chief that no one elected him to take on.

Elsewhere the Washington Post reports that Milley was so worried he made secret calls to his counterpart in China, one of which took place on Jan. 8, the same day as his phone call with Speaker Pelosi.

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.

Believing that China could lash out if it felt at risk from an unpredictable and vengeful American president, Milley took action. The same day, he called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing the military exercises, according to the book. The admiral complied.

Is Gen. Milley allowed to have high-level conversations like this without informing the president? I’m just recalling that the FBI went after Gen. Flynn for a phone call with the Russian ambassador. The claim was they Flynn may have violated the Logan Act by carrying out his own foreign policy. Granted the Logan Act has never really been enforced, but does that same scrutiny apply here?

Update: Alexander Vindman says Milley “must resign.”

Update: Trump calls Gen. Milley’s phone call to China “treason,” says it’s ridiculous to think he was ever going to attack China.