Bob Woodward’s latest book, Peril, co-authored with Robert Costa, has a lot to say about the military establishment. One of the figures who comes off looking really good is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, a main character in the book. Peril reports that, after the 2020 election, Milley was concerned an unstable commander in chief might launch a nuclear attack on China—so he took action to stop that from happening, and called a colleague in China to offer reassurances. Controversy over whether Milley’s actions were appropriate has exploded, with conservatives decrying supposed overreach and liberals praising the general as a hero—but Fred Kaplan, who writes the War Stories column for Slate, thinks both these conclusions completely miss the point. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Kaplan about Milley’s new position in the political discourse, and the truth about his actions. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Could you give me a quick biographical sketch of Milley and how he came to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
Fred Kaplan: Well, he had been the Army chief of staff. That’s how often the person who becomes chairman comes up. He’d gone to Princeton, but it was on a hockey scholarship. He’s kind of portrayed himself as this tough kid, but I’ve actually heard from people that he was quite smart and read a lot yet didn’t want to emphasize that too much so he could come off like a strong leader.
And one account said President Donald Trump was impressed by his tough guy swagger and medals. But after his appointment, I don’t remember hearing that much about him. Milley might’ve continued laboring in anonymity if it weren’t for what happened on June 1 of last year: the Lafayette Square incident, when, following George Floyd’s death, Trump used law enforcement to forcibly clear protestors so he could take a photo with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. Milley caught a lot of heat for standing with the president during a violent attack on people practicing a constitutional right to dissent. And you’ve said that, in the end, this moment caused a break in the military’s relationship with Trump.
That was when Milley realized that this guy Trump was something else: He was very dangerous, and he was exploiting the military structure for his own ego. That is when Milley started to turn a little bit.
The reporting that’s come out since that moment in Lafayette Square has all these tantalizing details about how Trump and Milley and others interacted. There were reportedly meetings where military leaders unloaded on Trump and shouted at him. And it sounds like Milley was talking to enlisted people directly and also talking to reporters, like, just furiously backpedaling.
I mean, the book has him saying these kinds of things to Trump. Quite honestly, I don’t know whether or not to believe this. I do know from his colleagues that Milley started to get more vocal, at least internally, when talking about Trump. At the beginning of the book, there’s a transcript of a tape-recorded phone call between Milly and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where Pelosi is going on about how Trump is crazy, this is dangerous that he could launch a nuclear weapon and Milley is saying things like, I agree with you completely.
Fast forward to December 2020. The president’s lost the election and Milley is still the chairman of the Joint Chiefs—
And he still is now, by the way.
Yeah, and the president had started replacing generals.
Well, he fired the secretary of defense who’d only been in that position for about a year. And he put in, as his deputy, this guy who’d been a lackey in the White House. Trump tried to do lots of things. He tried to put in a new CIA director. He put somebody in as general counsel of the NSA. At the time, it looked very suspicious, and in retrospect, I think it’s fair to say that he was doing all this in preparation for an attempted coup.
Seeing Trump potentially preparing himself to remain in power by force, Milley started to look at what other kinds of force Trump could use: The president controls the nukes. Here’s what Woodward’s book says happened. Milley summoned senior officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons, and he reminded them that while the president is the one giving the marching orders, the policy on this requires that he—Milley—must also be consulted. Then he asked each officer to affirm that they understood him, in what Woodward says Milley considered to be “an oath.”
You say the headlines claiming Milley subverted the chain of command are misguided and that, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he is already supposed to be involved when nuclear weapons are launched.
Many people think the president has a button and he pushes the button and then all the missiles fly. That’s not what happens.
There’s a guy with a suitcase, though.
Yeah, the guy with the big “football,” as they call it, which has a bunch of codebooks and communication equipment. If the president wants to launch a nuclear weapon, the communication is set up with something called the National Military Command Center, which is in the basement of the Pentagon and run by a one-star general and he communicates with this guy. First, this general authenticates that it really is the president. Then he inserts a code corresponding to the specific nuclear launch option, and he sends the order on to the missile silos, the submarines, the bomber bases.
However, in the protocols for this launch authority, the president gets on a conference call with a few people. It’s part of the procedure and it includes the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the secretary of defense, the commander of Strategic Command. The call goes through. That’s part of the deal. But the president is still the only one with the authority, so all that Gen. Milley was telling the guys at the National Military Command Center was, Be sure I am in on that call before you do anything. That’s not disrupting command authority.
Another story in this Woodward book that’s been getting attention is how, reportedly, Gen. Milley called his counterpart in China to reassure him about the state of the country in the wake of Jan. 6 and the election. What did you think of this story?
Well, this story was distorted a bit by this story by the newspaper accounts of what’s in the book. The newspaper accounts said that, according to the book, Gen. Milley told his Chinese counterpart, Don’t worry, if he’s about to attack you. I will give you a warning—but that’s not what Milley said. If you read the actual book, what Milley reportedly told the Chinese official was: If Trump was preparing for a war, you will have a warning, and you’ll see this coming. You have all these sensors and satellites just like we do. There’s no way that either of us could launch a surprise attack. That’s just a statement of fact. He wasn’t trying to get in front of it. He just wanted to be part of the consultation, which is a standard protocol.
The other thing is that this back channel was set up by the secretary of defense, and there have been similar back channels, with Russia and China, in several administrations. And Milley was not on either of these phone calls by himself. There were a dozen other people. This is what happens when there are phone calls like this these days: Other officials are listening in. Nobody gets on the phone with, say, the head of the Chinese military all by himself. It’s not done.
Another thing: In this book and in some other accounts recently, Milley has kind of been presenting himself as the savior of democracy. He did some admirable things, and these things were not outside the chain of command—but it wasn’t just him. And it could not have just been him.
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