The top United States general said he was not trying to undermine former President Donald Trump by placing calls to his Chinese counterpart after US intelligence signalled China feared Trump could order a US military attack.
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told Congress on Tuesday that two calls he made to General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army were to assure China that the US was not going to suddenly go to war.
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“I know, I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese,” General Milley testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“It was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” Milley said.
The top US general had come under criticism including calls to resign after news of the calls became public in mid-September after being documented in a book. Reports at the time characterised the calls as “secret”.
The two phone calls from Milley to General Li, the top commander of the People’s Liberation Army, occurred on October 30, 2020, and January 8, 2021. They were conducted in coordination with then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, Milley told Congress.
Milley’s calls came in response to “concerning intelligence, which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States”.
Questions about Milley’s contact with his Chinese counterpart have come as the US military under President Joe Biden has begun a weapons build-up in the Pacific aimed at countering China. Biden assembled leaders of Japan, India and Australia at the White House on September 24 to pledge opposition to Chinese “coercion” in the Indo-Pacific region.
Milley submitted a seven-page unclassified memo to the Senate committee detailing his contacts with China’s military officials and clarifying the role of the chairman of the joint chiefs.
“At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority or insert myself in the chain of command,” Milley said.
Milley’s call to Li on January 8 came two days after a pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol in a bid to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 election win.
Milley also received a phone call from House Speak Nancy Pelosi on January 8 in which the top House Democratic lawmaker expressed her alarm about Trump’s conduct and mental state.
“I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process,” Milley recounted to the Senate committee Tuesday.
“She was concerned, and made various personal references regarding the president. I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and that he doesn’t launch them alone,” Milley said.
“I am not qualified to determined the mental health of the president of the United States,” he added.
Some in Congress have accused Milley of disloyalty for reaching out to his Chinese counterpart in the final days of the Trump presidency to assure him that the US had no plan to attack China, as reported in the book Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
Senator Marco Rubio has called for his resignation, while Senator Rand Paul has said Milley should be prosecuted if the account in the book is true.
Milley had previously defended the calls as routine and within the duties and responsibilities of his job, but has declined to comment in detail on the book.
Milley’s explanation to Congress on Tuesday was the first time he has detailed specifically what happened.