General Mark Milley should face an investigation, without delay, concerning the allegations contained in a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. And if the claims turn out to be true, Milley should be removed from his post as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff immediately, and perhaps face more stringent sanctions for going behind the president’s back to the Chinese military during the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
We had occasion, during the Trump years, to warn not only about steps that Trump took to undermine the American system of government, but also about threats to that system created by the actions of others in response to him. Any consistent defender of constitutional government should be alarmed by both. Extralegal and anti-democratic steps justified as responses to a crisis have a way of becoming habits.
Woodward and Costa report that General Milley had grave concerns about Trump’s mental stability in the run-up to the 2020 election and through the aftermath of the January 2021 Capitol riot. He was also concerned that the Chinese military would overreact to saber-rattling by Trump, possibly creating an unnecessary military conflict. There are proper ways to air such concerns, such as insisting that presidential directives comply with the law and are properly handled through the chain of command, or marshaling support among the president’s senior advisers to counsel him against rash actions. There are many known occasions of the latter approach working with Trump, who never did order new acts of military force in his last months in office. There are even proper civilian procedures, much discussed and repeatedly attempted during the Trump era, to remove a commander-in-chief.
What is never proper is for an American military officer to go to hostile foreign governments to tell them things at odds with the message the president decides to communicate. According to the book, General Milley went to the head of the Chinese military to tell him, in effect, that Trump was bluffing. He reportedly ordered naval exercises canceled to avoid offending the Chinese. He even “went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack . . . ‘General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.’”
General Milley allegedly undertook all of these steps on his own, without telling the commander in chief. It appears that he may have done so without informing the civilian leadership of the State or Defense Departments or the National Security Council. This would constitute insubordination. Douglas MacArthur and John C. Frémont were fired for less. One of the specific reasons why Harry Truman removed MacArthur was that he was pushing his own ideas to friendly and neutral foreign ambassadors without telling the president. Doing so to an American adversary would be indefensible. Promising to do so in the event of a shooting war would be an offer to commit treason.
Recall that General Michael Flynn was wiretapped and questioned by the FBI for talking to the Russian ambassador, even though there is no reason to think that Flynn was carrying a message different from the one the incoming Trump administration would deliver. These allegations unquestionably are vastly more serious than what General Flynn did.
Generals don’t get to have their own personal foreign policies. Period. They answer to the elected branches, and they must carry out every lawful directive and policy set by the people’s representatives. Woodward’s methods have been questioned in the past, not least by the late and legendary editor Ben Bradlee. But if this account holds up, anyone who believes in democratic self-government, civilian control of the military, and the rule of law should join in calling for General Milley’s removal.