Steve September 15, 2021

From the moment Donald Trump won the presidency, I was worried about the possibility of a foreign adversary making a tragic miscalculation or seeing an opportunity to challenge the U.S. or one of its allies on the basis of Trump’s ignorance of America’s unique position in global security. It wasn’t that I necessarily thought that he would launch a war willy-nilly, although that was certainly within his power, I instead worried that other countries could misunderstand his bluster and erratic personality. Now a soon-to-be-released book by veteran D.C. reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, appropriately called “Peril”, suggests that was no idle worry.

According to reports on what’s revealed in the book by various news organizations, in the waning days of his presidency, Trump’s unstable behavior caused serious alarm in the Chinese government. The Washington Post reports that after reviewing intelligence reports, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A Milley called his counterpart in the Chinese military, Gen. Li Zuocheng, to assure him “that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay. We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.” Milley reportedly stressed the long-standing relationship he had with his counterpart and even told him that he would alert him in advance if the U.S. decided to attack. That phone call reportedly went on for an hour and a half.

After the January 6th insurrection, Milley once more got on the phone to reassure a very rattled Li that the U.S. wasn’t coming apart. “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.” Sloppy indeed.

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The New York Times’ Peter Baker and the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser also reveal in an upcoming book that General Milley had been gravely concerned that Trump seemed intent upon taking military action against Iran in the final days of 2020. Woodward and Costa likewise report that after a November meeting, CIA director Gina Haspel was equally troubled, telling Milley, “this is a highly dangerous situation. We are going to lash out for his ego?”

We also knew that Milley had become convinced that Trump was becoming more and more unstable and was looking for a “Reichstag Moment” as a rationale to go forward with overturning the election. Glasser reported that “Milley had, since late in 2020, been having morning phone meetings, at 8 a.m. on most days, with the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in the hopes of getting the country safely through to Joe Biden‘s Inauguration.”

Now “Peril” reveals that after January 6th and a phone call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — in which she demanded to know whether or not there were any precautions being taken to prevent Trump, whom she called “crazy,” from unilaterally launching a nuclear strike — Milley convened a meeting of senior officers and told them that in the event of an order to launch nuclear weapons. “No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure!”

That “I’m part of that procedure” has caused an uproar as well as his contacts with China’s General Li. According to experts on the nuclear procedures, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has no role aside from advising the president in such decisions, so if Milley meant that they could not proceed without his order, he was flat wrong. But Glasser’s earlier reporting has it a little bit different saying that Milley “told them to make sure there were no unlawful orders from Trump and not to carry out any such orders without calling him first.” Pentagon sources say he never said to violate procedure. It will likely take some more investigating to determine exactly if or how much Milley defied the normal line of authority.

The calls to Li may not have been quite as unusual, contrary to claims by outraged Republicans. 

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Apparently, flag officers in these positions do have conversations with one another although the fact that the president wasn’t informed and he promised to give a heads up if the U.S. decided to attack are unusual, to say the least. But I have to say that I’m grateful someone got on the horn to reassure the Chinese government that the U.S. was not on the verge of attacking them. Obviously, none of Trump’s inner circle were willing even though they had the same intelligence reports. Nonetheless, this erosion of the constitutional requirement for civilian control of the military is almost as frightening as Trump’s volatile behavior. Almost.

Milley became convinced that Trump was dangerously mentally unstable and he took it upon himself to, as “Peril’s” authors put it, “pull a Schlesinger” which refers to the last time a Republican president started to buckle under the pressure of his own mistakes and left office in disgrace. That was in August of 1974 during the final days of the Nixon administration when Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger reportedly ordered certain presidential orders — especially those related to nuclear arms — to be cleared by himself personally or National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. (How comforting.) This was supposedly after Nixon had told him “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” This was the kind of comment Trump made on a regular basis:

And keep in mind that after the election Trump had abruptly fired Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and installed a loyalist in his place along with a handful of other henchmen in strategic posts in the Pentagon. He’d pushed out others at the NSA and the CIA and attempted to replace them with cronies. Nobody knew exactly what they were up to but it was very weird for a president to do that in the last two months of his presidency. Even former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quoted in “Peril” saying, “he’s in a very dark place right now.” You can’t blame Milley or anyone else for fearing the worst.

The Daily Beast reported that Trump called around to allies on Tuesday telling them to go on TV and say that Milley should be arrested for treason. GOP officials are also calling for his head. I’ll leave it to the experts to say whether or not he violated the chain of command so egregiously that he has to go.

But I will say this: It’s a miracle that we have managed to survive the nuclear age so far with the biggest nuclear arsenal on earth in the hands of irrational leaders like Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. We’ve been lucky so far but I doubt that luck will hold out forever. If we cannot rid the world of these terrifying weapons as we should, or always elect sane, competent people to the presidency as we apparently cannot, the least we could do is find some way to ensure that one unstable person doesn’t have the sole power to unleash them. This system must be reformed before something unthinkable happens.

from Salon

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