The question of who would tell Trump the truth when needed and who would stop him if he tried to go to war with anyone became increasingly urgent as his presidency unfolded. On the matter of war, we now know the answer.
The Washington Post has published key excerpts from a book to be published next week: Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. They are compelling and credible reading.
They provide an answer to the question on Trump and going to war. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, the most senior US military officer, took action against a possible disastrous directive from Trump.
So deep was his concern about Trump’s state of mind and intentions that he twice called his Chinese counterpart General Li Zuocheng to assure him that the US was not preparing to attack China and if that changed, and orders were in fact being implemented for such an attack, he would let Li know “ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise”.
It was not just China. Trump had also talked about attacking Iran which led Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, to express alarm that, “we are going to lash out for his ego”.
Clearly, Milley was aware of the profound importance which attaches to the chain of command, from the president, as commander-in-chief, then downwards through the military.
He checked with others his estimation of Trump’s state of mind and intentions — for example with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He and Pelosi agreed that Trump was “crazy” and according to a transcript obtained by Woodward and Costa, Pelosi had demanded to know from Milley “what precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike”. Milley asserted that there were “a lot of checks in the system”.
That assertion, while hopefully true, sits uncomfortably alongside the reverence held in the US system for the office of the presidency and the chain of command.
The situation Milley believed the nation and the system faced, was excruciating, but he took it on and, sought support from other senior officers, presumably the joint chiefs. According to the authors, he obtained from them an oath that any order by the president on the launching of nuclear weapons would not be actioned, if Milley was not also involved.
An aspect of Woodward and Costa’s report which is highly relevant to the future, is the view held by Haspel, and others, that the events at the Capitol on January 6 constituted an attempted coup and that the movement and motives it involved, are not over.
That movement which, inter alia, continues daily to insist that the presidential election was stolen from Trump, remains numerically large and has captured the Republican party. The party’s sharpest focus, during this year, in the 30 States where it controls the legislature, is to pass laws restricting voting. Trump had made clear his belief that the more people who could vote, the harder it would be for Republicans to win.
Trump has already declared Milley’s action in calling his Chinese counterpart treason. Some Republican representatives have spoken of the clear abrogation of the chain of command that took place and the “crime” of passing classified information to China.
Milley would have had quite a wrestle with all of this. Interestingly, his awareness of Trump’s capacity to act unconstitutionally was underlined when Trump tried to have him and the military attack US citizens protesting on Black Lives Matter. Milley was bitter about that and apologised publicly for having been in Lafayette Square with Trump on that day.
It is unlikely that history will conclude that he needs to apologise for his two phone calls to Beijing.