Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reaffirmed his “confidence” in Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley after an alleged call to reassure his Chinese counterpart there would be no surprise U.S. attack in the waning days of former President Donald Trump’s term.
It was the latest sign that both the Biden administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were closing ranks behind Milley as he faces calls to resign over what critics perceived as undermining civilian control of the military and Trump’s constitutional powers as commander in chief. Milley’s call to China was first reported in a book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward and Washington Post reporter Robert Costa.
“I have confidence in Gen. Milley,” Austin told reporters at a joint briefing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and their Australian counterparts. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he had “great confidence” in Milley. White House press secretary Jen Psaki described him as having “complete confidence.”
Austin would not comment on the Woodward-Costa book, which also contains reporting on the defense secretary and Blinken, more generally. But he was specifically asked about Milley's call to China.
"And finally, regarding Gen. Milley, again, much of what’s — all of what’s in that book happened before I became secretary of defense, so I can’t comment on that, as well,” Austin said. “Certainly, I won’t comment on what’s in the book.”
Austin is himself a recently retired Army general who required a congressional waiver to serve as secretary of defense.
The bombshell report said that Milley grew so concerned about Trump’s erratic behavior and claims of a stolen election between November and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that he sought to reassure China there would be no sneak attack to shore up the incumbent commander in chief’s position.
Critics said this would mean Milley inserted himself into a process where the president is the legitimate constitutional decision-maker and potentially projected uncertainty about the U.S. government to a hostile foreign power in the midst of a contested election. Trump said if Milley behaved as Woodward and Costa describe, it would constitute treason. In a statement on Thursday, Trump called Milley, who was already under fire for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last month, “the Taliban and China’s all-time favorite General!”
The White House has said it is important to recognize that Milley was acting in the context of a president encouraging an “insurrection.”
"The president has complete confidence in his leadership, his patriotism, and his fidelity to our Constitution," Psaki said of Milley. "It's the obligation of every chairman of the Joint Chiefs to follow constitutional orders to prevent unlawful military action. ... That's what the president believes."
Asked about Republican calls for Milley to resign, Psaki said, "I don't think the president is looking for the guidance of members of Congress who stood by while the president of the United States and the leader of their party fomented an insurrection and many of them were silent.”
Milley “regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia,” Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Col. Dave Butler said in a statement. “These conversations remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict.”
The Butler statement did not deny the claim that Milley made the call or dispute Woodward and Costa’s characterization of its contents.
Joel Gehrke contributed to this report.
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Original Author: W. James Antle III