The latest Trump tell-all everyone's talking about is "Peril," partly because of the pedigree of the authors — Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward, a household name, and Robert Costa, who could soon be.
While there are many revelations about former President Donald Trump and the early months of the Biden administration, the one garnering the most conversation, and controversy, is that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made two discreet phone calls to his Chinese counterpart to reassure him that despite the turmoil over the 2020 election the U.S. would not start a war with China.
The first call to People's Liberation Army Gen. Li Zuocheng came four days before the election, reportedly responding to intelligence reports suggesting that the Chinese thought the U.S. was preparing an attack, in which Milley reportedly told Li that "the American government is stable and everything is going to be OK." Milley then reportedly reassured Li that not only wasn't there any planned military action, but that the Chinese would be forewarned if there were an attack. "If we're going to attack, I'm going to call you ahead of time. It's not going to be a surprise."
That "Peril" quote has proved especially perilous for Milley. Some lawmakers have called for his resignation. Some have even labeled him a traitor.
Milley has confirmed the calls to Li — and leaders from other nations during the turbulent times — but denies the dire description of them. In a statement, a spokesperson for the general said that his "calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability. All calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency."
And in an interview with the Associated Press, Milley said the calls were "perfectly within the duties and responsibilities" of his role and that calls like these are "routine" in order "to reassure both allies and adversaries, in this case, in order to ensure strategic stability."
Allies and adversaries may have been temporarily reassured. But the U.S. government looks anything but stable when the country's top military officer is so concerned over the commander-in-chief's mental decline that he feels the need to make such calls in the first place.
But as reporting from other sources also indicates, Milley didn't go rogue. In fact, Woodward and Costa themselves report that the worries over Trump's destabilizing behavior were shared with others in the administration, including Trump appointees like CIA Director Gina Haspel, who reportedly told Milley, "We are on our way to a right-wing coup."
The House committee investigating the kinetic attempt at overturning the election results, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, have sought records related to the calls. The committee should probe what prompted the calls, whether they were in fact "routine," and whether Milley overstepped the key constitutional structure of civilian control of the military.
Tough questions should also be asked of Milley when he appears in a separate hearing Sept. 28 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. And a group of conservative Republican representatives have requested a formal Defense Department investigation. More pressure, and more investigations, will likely follow.
The inquiries are appropriate. Milley himself told that AP that "I'll go into any level of detail Congress wants to go into in a couple of weeks."
For a full accounting of Trump's final weeks in office, Congress also should assess the former president's actions, and how his defiance of defeat necessitated members of his own administration to take such actions.
In his second call to Li, two days after the Capitol attack, Milley reportedly said, "We are 100 percent steady. Everything's fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes."
On that last part, everyone can agree.