Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley listens during a briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley listens during a briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan. AP / Susan Walsh

Milley’s China Calls During Trump Defeat Were ‘Lawful,’ Conveyed Reassurance, Pentagon Says

Some Republicans are seeking his ouster, but the Joint Chiefs chairman is the first to serve a guaranteed four years.

Updated at 3:02 p.m.

Gen. Mark Milley did not go outside the chain of command when the Joint Chiefs chairman reached out to Chinese leaders to reassure them the U.S. would not attack China in the unsteady weeks before and after the 2020 election, his office said Wednesday. 

Milley, who is guaranteed another two years in his job, has faced pressure from Congressional Republicans to resign following revelations in Bob Woodward’s upcoming book Peril that the chairman took unusual steps to prevent war. Those steps included reminding flag officers of their specific roles and responsibilities if a nuclear launch were ordered during former President Donald Trump’s erratic final days in office. 

Milley’s calls with the Chinese “were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability,” his spokesman Col. Dave Butler said in a statement. “The meeting regarding nuclear weapons protocols was to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject.” 

Sworn in as the 20th Joint Chiefs chairman in September 2019, Milley is the first to serve a guaranteed four-year term. Past chairmen served two-year terms, renewable once by the White House. But under legislation that went into effect two years ago, the Army general could serve a second four-year term, and even beyond that “in time of war.” 

That change provides an important protection for Milley now, said Kori Schake, senior fellow and the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

“The four-year term does protect Gen. Milley now, as it was designed to do,” Schake said in a statement to Defense One. “It'd be terrible to fire or force the resignation of the first [chairman] subject to Congress' extension of the term, because it would set the precedent of much greater politicization. As we saw with waiving the requirement for secretaries of defense, the norms get quickly washed away once traversed.”

On Tuesday, Donald Trump responded to the allegations in Woodward’s book by saying that he had never considered launching an attack on China. 

“I’ve had so many calls today saying, ‘That’s treason’,” Trump said on Newsmax. “For him to say that I would even think about attacking China, I think he’s trying to just get out of his incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan.” 

Some Republicans have called for Milley to be removed from his post. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday demanding that he fire Milley for “working to actively undermine” the president.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Milley subverted the president’s authority as commander in chief. 

“He needs to resign, and if he won’t resign, he needs to be fired,” Hawley said Wednesday on Fox News. “He has broken the trust of the American people.”

Other lawmakers have said they are still seeking more information. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who has been a vocal critic of the Biden administration, said the allegations raised by the book seemed “far-fetched” and said he would ask Milley for more information when he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee later this month.

“We don’t want to jump to conclusions yet, but we’ll certainly vet them and see exactly what happened,” he told “Fox & Friends.”

Biden, asked on Wednesday about the situation after a White House meeting with business leaders, said, “I have great confidence in General Milley.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Wednesday that Biden believes Milley's commitment to the Constitution is “unquestionable.” 

“It’s also important to understand the context,” Psaki said. “The former president was fomenting an insurrection and there was broad concern from a range of members of his national security team about his behavior and his fitness for office.”