The country’s senior-most military officer did not bypass his civilian leaders when he called his Chinese counterpart last October and January, his office said on Wednesday, as General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, moved to limit the damage from a book that alleges that he secretly called China twice over concerns that his boss at the time, President Donald J. Trump, might spark a war with Beijing.
General Milley’s spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, said in a statement that “all calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency,” in a reference to the government national security bureaucracy.
“General Milley continues to act and advise within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military and his oath to the Constitution,” the statement said.
General Milley’s “calls with the Chinese and others in October and January,” Colonel Butler said, “were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.”
Colonel Butler did not speak to the specifics of the conversation, which, according to “Peril,” the new book by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, included reassurances that Mr. Trump had no plans to attack China as part of an effort to remain in power and that the United States was not collapsing.
“Things may look unsteady,” General Milley told Gen. Li Zuocheng of China on Jan. 8, two days after Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol to try to stop the certification of his election loss, in the second of two such calls. “But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Yet despite those assurances, the book asserts that General Milley was so concerned about Mr. Trump that he convened a meeting with top commanders later that day to remind them of the procedures for launching a nuclear weapon and that he needed to be involved in such a decision.
The Pentagon press secretary, John F. Kirby, said Wednesday that there was nothing wrong with that, calling it “completely appropriate for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the senior military adviser to the president, to want to see the protocols reviewed.” He added that “I see nothing in what I’ve read that would cause any concern.”
President Biden on Wednesday said he had “great confidence in General Milley.”
“The president has complete confidence in his leadership, his patriotism, and his fidelity to our Constitution,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said during a press briefing on Wednesday.
But some Republican leaders took to Twitter to express their fury.
“I will be declining this invite to dine with Attempted Coup Leader and Renowned Critical Race Theorist Mark Milley,” Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida wrote, posting a photo of an invitation from the National Defense University to a dinner and reception in October where the general is the featured speaker. It’s unlikely the general extended that invite personally; he took Mr. Gaetz to task in June during a congressional hearing, after Mr. Gaetz criticized military institutions for teaching about systemic racism.
Instead of demurring to the congressman, as military leaders often do during congressional hearings, General Milley retorted that he had read Mao, Marx and Lenin and that “doesn’t make me a communist.”
Still, the last thing the Pentagon wants is the appearance that military leaders have gone around their civilian counterparts, even during the tumultuous last months of the Trump presidency, when Mr. Trump made clear in a series of meetings, officials said, that he was not averse to using the military to help him remain in power.
Similar to other media reports and books released since Mr. Trump left office, “Peril” details how his presidency essentially collapsed in his final months in office, particularly after his election loss and the start of his campaign to deny the results. Top aides — including General Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William P. Barr — became convinced that they needed to take drastic measures to stop him from trampling on American democracy or setting off an international conflict, and General Milley thought that Mr. Trump had declined mentally in the aftermath of the election, according to the book.
A senior Defense official said that Mr. Esper, in the weeks before he was unceremoniously fired by Mr. Trump, also made calls of reassurance to foreign counterparts worried about Mr. Trump.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting from Washington
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