Milley: Beijing’s fears of U.S. attack prompted call to Chinese general

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The top U.S. military officer on Tuesday vigorously defended his phone calls with a Chinese general during the turbulent final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, revealing that U.S. intelligence officials believed the Chinese were “worried about an attack.”

Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that his two phone calls with Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng — one on Oct. 30 and another on Jan. 8, just two days after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol — were part of his duties to “deconflict military actions, manage crisis and prevent war between great powers armed with nuclear weapons.”

The phone calls, which were first reported in the book "Peril" by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, were intended to reassure the Chinese that the U.S. would not suddenly launch an attack. According to the authors, Milley — fearful that Trump could act erratically in his final days in office — told Li that he would warn him if the U.S. planned to attack China.

But he added that he was “not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States” — a comment that was not included in his prepared remarks. In describing the calls, the book made references to long-running claims by Trump’s political opponents that the then-president was mentally unstable, especially at the end of his tenure in office as he was falsely asserting that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

The four-star general told senators on Tuesday that he was “certain” that Trump “did not intend on attacking the Chinese, and it is my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent.”

“My task at that time was to de-escalate,” Milley told senators, revealing for the first time that the “specific purpose” of his phone calls to Li “was generated by concerning intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack by the U.S.”

Milley added that several top Trump appointees were aware of his calls, including then-chief of staff Mark Meadows, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and, in January, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller. Trump has since slammed Milley over the calls and claimed that Milley never told him about them.

Milley said he would address the intelligence that prompted the phone calls in a classified setting with senators later Tuesday. He also offered to share with the committee “all emails, phone logs, memoranda, witnesses or anything else you need to better understand these events.”

The firestorm over Milley’s calls has prompted some Republicans to call for Milley’s resignation or firing. The White House, meanwhile, has said President Joe Biden has “complete confidence” in Milley, a Trump appointee who was retained by Biden.

Tuesday’s hearing, which was called to focus on the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, was the first time Milley addressed the controversy in detail. And while he provided new explanations for the calls, he also referenced a Jan. 8 phone call he had with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which the California Democrat sought to “inquire about the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons,” according to Milley.

“I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process,” Milley added. “There are processes, protocols and procedures in place and I repeatedly assured her there is no chance of an illegal, unauthorized or accidental launch.”

According to a memo detailing that phone call, which was submitted to the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and obtained by POLITICO, Milley described Pelosi as “concerned” and said she “made various personal references characterizing the president.”

The two phone calls with China have also prompted a formal inquiry from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The panel has requested records from the Defense Department related to the conversations.

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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