Did Gen. Milley Go Too Far?

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S1: Is there something of a rhythm to a Bob Woodward book launch for someone like you like, you kind of put it into your calendar?

S2: Oh, I see. Like Hanukkah or something?

S1: Exactly. Fred Kaplan writes the War Stories column for Slate.

S2: Yeah. OK, here comes another Woodward book request the advance copy. Read the advance copy of

S1: Bob Woodward’s latest book, Peril, co-authored with Robert Costa. It’s got a lot to say about the military establishment, which is why it seemed like a good time to give Fred a call. Fred says he respects the journalism here, but also

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S2: one thing about Woodward books You’ll notice this. There are heroes. These heroes have no gray at all. It is all just guys in white suits, and they tend to be the people who talk to Woodward a lot. Where did Woodward get a lot of stuff for this book? It’s the people who come up looking really good.

S1: One of the people who comes off looking really good in peril is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley.

S2: And in this book, Milley is the hero. Let me give you an example. Remember back when George Floyd was killed by policemen and there were demonstrations and near riots all over the place

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S3: as we speak. I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.

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S2: The National Guard was called out in Washington.

S3: President Trump walked out of the White House to pose for a photo outside of a church that had been slightly burned by protesters

S2: and General Milley, who had been not openly challenged. President Trump was out on the street wearing combat fatigues.

S3: Behind him walked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, America’s senior most officer.

S1: Yeah, I remember it was the first time I was really aware of General Milley.

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S2: Yeah, strutting around like it was a battlefield. Well. According to Woodward’s book, he knew that this would be a long night. So he changed into his combat fatigues to be more comfortable. You know, I just don’t think that’s true.

S1: But this story? It’s not the one that’s gotten all the attention as Woodward’s book hit the shelves. Instead, chapters focused on what General Milley did after this incident.

S4: Yes, sir, we learned that Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a danger to the country.

S1: Peril reports that after the 2020 election, General Milley was concerned a mentally unstable commander in chief could launch a nuclear attack on China. The book says Milley took action to stop that from happening, and then he called a colleague in China to offer reassurances.

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S4: It’s hard to believe that conversation actually took place, but apparently it did.

S1: I’m looking at the reaction to Woodward and Costa’s book, and it feels like this political litmus test. Like, if I flip on Fox News, I’m going to hear someone saying General Mark Milley is a danger to the country.

S2: Full stop.

S4: If he actually told the Chinese, Hey, if we’re going to do something, we’re going to give you a heads up. I mean, that is so on unconstitutional, so wrong.

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S1: And then I flip on MSNBC and I’ll hear how he protected the country from a president who could have gone rogue.

S2: General Milley actually did the right thing by trying to prevent anybody from carrying out an illegal order.

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S1: Are either of those hot takes correct?

S2: No, no. Neither the secretary of Defense nor the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is actually in the chain of command for launching a nuclear weapon. There is no chain of command. It’s the president. And that’s it.

S1: Today on the show, the truth about General Mark Milley, he’s at the center of this new book. And now at the center of a political debate, is that where he belongs? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Let me just go way back, because, you know, over the last few days, I’ve heard so much about Mark Milley. But I don’t know a lot about him. So could you give me a quick biographical sketch of him and how he came to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs?

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S2: Well, he had been the army chief of staff. Often the person who becomes chairman had been the chief of staff of his service before he going to Princeton, but it was on a hockey scholarship. And so he kind of portrayed himself as this kind of tough one kid, you know? But actually, I heard from people since you know him that he was actually quite smart and read a lot, but didn’t want to emphasize that too much so that he could come off like a strong leader.

S1: Know one account said that Trump was impressed by his tough guy swagger and his medals.

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S2: Yes, Trump, you know, he has said this for a lot of people. He’d like to appoint people who look quote right out of central casting and Milley kind of looks like a general out of central casting.

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S1: And did he coast along for a while? Like, I mean, I don’t remember really hearing that much about him.

S2: No, you don’t hear much about chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The thing is, there was a there was a reform in the military structure back in 1986, which put all the chiefs made it so that they were no longer in the chain of command on anything that the chairman wanted to have a meeting with the president. He could call up and get one immediately direction. But that’s it. So most chairmen, you know, you can look at a list of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1986, and my guess is that you’ve heard of almost none of them.

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S1: Milley might have continued laboring in anonymity if it wasn’t for what happened on June 1st of last year. You probably remember this Lafayette Square incident when, following George Floyd’s death, then President Donald Trump use law enforcement to forcibly clear protesters so he could take a photo with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church during this violent attack on people practicing a constitutional right to dissent. Fred says in the end, this moment caused a break between Trump and not just Milley, but the entire military establishment.

S2: That was when Milley realized that this guy, Trump was something else. He was very dangerous. He was using exploiting, you know, military structure and himself for his own just purposes. And that that is when you started to turn a little bit.

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S1: Yeah. When when Milley apologized, he did it in this particularly public way, right? It was in a prerecorded commencement address,

S4: as many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I’ve learned from. And I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.

S1: To me that the choice of that seems pretty intentional.

S2: They’ve even underlined in our letter that we must be loyal to the Constitution, you know, that sort of thing. And that’s when the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, who up until then had been nicknamed yes, Esper, because she never said no to Trump on anything. That’s when he started. Calling some of Trump’s orders into question as well.

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S1: The reporting that’s come out since that moment in Lafayette Square has had all of these tantalizing details about how Trump and Milley and others interacted. It’s talked about how there were meetings where Milley sort of unloaded on Trump and and shouted at him about how, you know, Lincoln had an insurrection on his hands. But we have a protest here. And so it sounds like he was in addition to these very public facing things, talking to enlisted people directly. He was also talking to reporters like just really furiously backpedaling.

S2: Yeah, I mean, in the book, it has him saying these kinds of things to Trump. And 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 talking about Trump. Like, there’s the beginning of the book. A transcript of a tape recorded between Milley and Speaker Pelosi or Pelosi is going on about how Trump is crazy. This is dangerous. Could you launch a nuclear weapon? And Milley is saying things like, Yep, I agree with you completely. Hmm.

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S1: So fast forward to December 2020. Presidents lost the election. Milley is still the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,

S2: and he still is now, by the way.

S1: Yeah, yeah. And the president started replacing generals. And I have to say that before I refresh my memory, I’d forgotten about this, that all of a sudden there was this movement in the military command that I think caught some people’s attention. Do you remember that?

S2: Well, he he fired the secretary of defense, who had only been secretary for about a year and he put in as his deputy. This guy had been lacking in the White House. He tried to do lots of things. He tried to put in a new CIA director, put somebody in as general counsel of the NSA. You know, at the time, it looked very suspicious. And in retrospect, I think it’s it’s fair to say that he was doing all this in preparations for an attempted coup.

S1: Seeing Trump potentially prepare himself to remain in power by force, Milley started looking around for what other kinds of force Trump could use. And if you’re looking for a place in the federal government where authority over force is concentrated under the president, Fred says it doesn’t take you very long to start thinking about the nukes. Here’s what Woodward’s book says happened next. First, Milley summoned senior officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons, and then he reminded them that while the president is the one giving the marching orders, the policy on this requires that he. Gen. 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, Fred says the headlines claiming Milley subverted the chain of command are misguided. As chair of the Joint Chiefs, Milley is already supposed to be involved when nuclear weapons are launched.

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S2: Here is what the nuclear procedure is. Many people think the president has a button and he pushes the button and then all the missiles fly. That’s not what happens.

S1: There’s a guy with a suitcase, though.

S2: Yeah, the guy with a big football, as they call it. What’s in that football are a bunch of code books and communication equipment. The president wants to launch a nuclear weapon. The communications is set up with something called the National Military Command Center, which is in the basement of the Pentagon, and it’s run by a one star general and he communicates with this guy. And first, he authenticates that it really is him. This is really the president. And then he inserts a code corresponding to the specific nuclear launch option.

S1: Sounds like a game of Battleship.

S2: Well, yeah, then that one star general sends the order on to the missile silos and submarines, the bomber bases. And that is it. That is it. However, in the protocols for this launch authority, the president gets on a conference call with a few people, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

S1: Well, that’s what conference call is like on the to do list if you want to launch a nuke.

S2: It’s part of the procedure and it includes the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, the Commander of Strategic Command. And if there’s time they talk about it a little bit now, he doesn’t have to pay attention to what they say, but

S1: he has to call

S2: the car goes through, that’s part of the deal. He’s still the only one with the authority, so all that all the general Milley was telling the guys at the new National Military Command Center was be sure I am in on that call before you do anything so that that’s not disrupting command authority.

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S1: There’s another story in this Woodward book that’s been getting attention about the fact that reportedly General Milley called his counterpart in China to reassure him about the state of the country in the wake of January 6th and the election. And you know, everything’s OK here, and if anything takes place, I’m on it. You know me, we’ve been doing business for a while. What did you think of this story?

S2: Well, this story was destroyed in a bid by the newspaper accounts of what’s in the book. The Weirdest Thing in the newspaper accounts said that Milley told generally the Chinese counterpart, Don’t worry, he’s about to attack you. I will give you warning, and I’m reading this in The Washington Post and taking decisions. That’s going a bit far, you know? But that’s not what he said. I mean, if you read the book, the actual book and let’s say it’s all true, what he told me was it was preparing for a war. You will have warning 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. You’ll see it coming. And so that’s just a statement of fact.

S1: Oh, it’s not like you’ll see it because I’ll send you a telegram. It’s like you’ll see it because you have a satellite,

S2: you know exactly. You’ll see it because you’ll see this happening and you’ll see that happening. So what would it cost her getting a bum rap on that and Milley is really getting it. That’s the one where, you know you have various people saying this is an act of treason and you should be called up to a military tribunal. And he did that. Maybe you should be, but he didn’t. The other thing is that this back channel was up by the secretary of Defense, not by four star general. And in fact, there have been similar back channels, both with Russia and China in several administrations. Not only that, and this has been reported elsewhere, 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.

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S1: So you’re saying Milley wasn’t sitting there like texting, hey, you

S2: know, no, he was not in it by himself. He was there with others. You know, nobody gets on the phone on a phone call. We with something like, you know, the head of the Chinese military, all by himself. You don’t do that. It’s not done. And so that that’s the other thing. I mean, there Milley in this book and in some other books recently, Milley has kind of been presenting himself as the savior of democracy. You know, I hadn’t been there to do this. We’d be in a heap of trouble. That’s, you know, he did some admirable things. These things were not outside the chain of command. But this wasn’t just him. It wasn’t just him. And it could not have just been him.

S1: When we come back, why it is so hard to put in place backstops to presidential authority, especially when it comes to nukes. You said Milley clearly wants to think of himself a little bit of as a hero if you read between the lines. He’s talking about the possibility of a coup under Trump and saying he’s quoted as saying, You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA. And the FBI were the guys with the guns. And at least one observer pointed out that like, there’s something grandiose about that. And in some ways, it’s a little dangerous because it’s putting the military in this position of regulating government, which is against

S2: what they’re supposed to do. Go to the leaders of Congress, and I’m not saying that Milley is sugarcoating or falsifying what he was thinking or how he felt about Trump. Just about every senior officer that I ever talked with had deep suspicions and misgivings about Trump. But but yeah, he he overplays, you know, the men on the white horse, as they call it, how the military is going to save us from doom. Yeah, it is strange. And he’s talking about how we have the guns. We can’t. We will let him. We won’t let him get away with this. You know, did he talk about did he think about going to Congress and telling people what was going on or doing an alliance with other people in the right? I mean, you kind of don’t want. The military to be I mean, sometimes they’ll have to I mean, people are telling me no when people are saying, Oh, you know, Trump is going to hold himself up in the White House and he’s going to be protected by all these sheriff’s friends in these militias. They’re going to surround the place with guns. And I would say to people, you know, a little bit kiddingly, but not entirely that. Well, look, one on one M-1 tank coming down Pennsylvania Avenue is going to make these guys stand. And maybe. And maybe it would have had I didn’t think it was ever going to come to that. I thought if that happens, what’s really going to happen is that some marshals are going to go into the White House and a restaurant for trespassing on federal property.

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S1: What actually concerns Fred more than the idea of the military needing to intervene and stop an unhinged president is the question of nukes, specifically the unhinged president’s unfettered and unilateral control over the nuclear codes that can fire weapons of decimating force anywhere around the world.

S2: We’ve always had this tension within the Constitution between Article one, Section eight, which gives the power to declare and fund wars to Congress and Article two, Section two, which makes the president the commander in chief of the entire military and. To the extent that courts and implicitly Congress have settled this dilemma, they put their thumbs down on Article two, and so do you have a situation where the president of the United States has the sole and unilateral power to move armies all over the world and to launch nuclear weapons strictly on his own? And, you know, at a time when there is an expectation or a fear, a bit of a surprise bolt from the blue nuclear attack by Russia, it would catch us off guard and disarm our entire nuclear force. And somebody had to make a decision in 20 minutes when you saw the missiles coming. Well, you know, maybe there was something to that. But in terms of the notion of launching nuclear weapons first ourselves to settle with a perceived conflict, there really isn’t a very good reason why all this should be left in the hands of one person. And you know, Congress has held two hearings on the issue of nuclear launch. Authorities on was in 1976, shortly after Nixon left office, and

S1: was that because of Nixon, because everyone knew Nixon about

S2: this? Absolutely. And the other one was just a few years ago in twenty seventeen. Not that long after Trump went on about fire and fury.

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S3: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

S2: It was said at the hearing in 2017, which was Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when the Republicans were in charge of that committee. A Democrat and a Democratic member of the committee said, Look, well, let’s not let’s not be coy here, we’re holding this hearing because we have a president who seems to be unstable, who makes quixotic decisions, and you could maybe launch a nuclear war without anybody that goes against our national interests. Not a single Republican spoke up and said, How dare you? This is, you know, nobody said anything. This was this was known. So they have these hearings.

S1: Did anything happen?

S2: No, nothing. Nothing changed, even remotely.

S1: It’s interesting because in the wake of all this, you know, I was watching cable news and looking at how they were processing these stories about the general. And I saw Representative Ted Lieu. And he has a bill that would restrict to the president’s nuclear power. It, you know, would basically make him go to Congress first. And his take, he was like, You know what? Milley was trying to get in front of a rogue nuclear launch.

S2: There will be a legal order and military members do not carry out illegal orders. General Milley actually did the right thing.

S1: I was just thinking, Is that even true? It’s just a nuclear launch. Like, it’s not rogue at all. He completely has the authority.

S2: Yes. It’s not rocket all. And as we were saying earlier, he he wasn’t trying to get in front of it. He just wanted to be part of the consultation, which is the standard protocol. This isn’t the first time in 2017, Senator Markey tried to put up a bill that that would do that. It wasn’t even sent to the floor. In 1976, Senator Proxmire, Wisconsin put up a similar bill. It got 10 votes in the Senate. 10. Nobody wants to take responsibility for this.

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S1: Why not?

S2: One reason why presidents have been able to do whatever they want with war powers is because Congress doesn’t want to get in the way because. What if you do get in the way and you tell them, no, we’re not going there, and then there is an attack where things go south in some other way. Nobody in Congress wants to take responsibility for this.

S1: No one wants to blame.

S2: They don’t want the blame. And they’re in that hearing. In 2017, one of the witnesses was a former commander of Strategic Command, which is in charge of the nukes. And he said, Look, you don’t need Congress. You can change these procedures if you want. This is up to you. This is a political decision. We would be able to accommodate, however you wanted to do this, but but nobody wants to do it.

S1: It’s interesting because you talk about this constitutional kind of breakdown when it comes to nukes. But what I see here is also this other breakdown, which is the Constitution assumes this teamwork from the cabinet if they want to invoke the 25th Amendment from people in Congress, if they want to impeach. And that seems to be a missing element right now that I think these stories about Milley really highlight because he kind of comes in with this. I alone can fix it. Yeah. Kaplan approach. And you know, I was reading one opinion writer over at The Washington Post who basically said his problem here wasn’t treason. It was hubris. And what we need is more of the people working the actual constitutional levers as opposed to another big ego coming blustering in.

S2: You talk about the Constitution as a teamwork. This is the interesting thing getting back to nuclear launch authority. You know, one reason why the framers divided authority between three branches of government and put in the provisions for an impeachment and so forth was the fear that at some point? A tyrant or somebody else is some kind of miscreant is going to become president and he can’t have all the power. And so that’s why you have all these checks and balances with nuclear weapons. There are no checks and balances. Nobody has come along in the 75 years since the atomic age began and said, OK, how do we safely, without damaging our security, impose some kind of checks and balances on what is the most absolute power that the president has the power to to blow up the planet? And I’m not exaggerating when I say that. I mean, you know, even a quote unquote small nuclear war would kill hundreds of millions of people. And that is a feeling that we are still living and looking through every day.

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S1: Fred Kaplan. Thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Sure. Anytime.

S1: Fred Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate. He’s also the author of The Bomb Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad, Alan Schwarz, Daniel Hewitt and Davis Land. We’re led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Also, before I go cool thing we’re doing right now. You can check out what next and some of your other slate favorites in our new Stay Curious collection on Amazon Music, too, Neal. All right, I’ll catch you back here tomorrow. How do you read these books so fast, Fred, like what are you up all night? Are you reading? What are you doing?

S2: This isn’t exactly Hagel, you know? I mean, they’re reading pretty briskly.

S1: Yeah, OK. It’s like Jurassic Park. But yeah, not.