The Corner

Is the General Milley Story Really a Mark Esper Story?

Defense Secretary Mark Esper (left) listens as Joint Chiefs Chairman Army General Mark Milley addresses a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

New reports allege Milley was acting on the instructions of then–Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

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As I noted yesterday, the Washington Post’s account of General Mark Milley’s conversation with the head of the Chinese military is, if true as reported, grounds for immediate termination of the general and possibly graver sanctions. Generals do not get to make their own foreign policy, no matter how much they disagree with the president. Alexander Vindman, a former military adviser to White House and key Trump critic, agreed that this would be grounds for General Milley’s termination.

The Post account is drawn from a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, based on anonymous sources. As our editorial noted, Woodward’s reporting has had some serious credibility issues in the past, not that that has stopped the Beltway media from treating it as gospel for decades whenever it reflects what liberals want to hear is really going on in Republican White Houses. For my part, I was more inclined to believe Woodward and Costa this time because of the extensive indications that Milley and/or someone close and sympathetic to him were major sources for the book, which (judging from excerpts) appears to portray Milley as heroically standing in the path of an insane president bent on running the country into multiple new wars while abandoning the ones we were already fighting.

As of now, the central charge in the Woodward/Costa story has been neither denied nor rebutted: that General Milley communicated with the Chinese military a message at odds with what the president wanted as a matter of policy to communicate, and specifically told the Chinese general that if Trump ordered a military strike on China, Milley would give them advance warning. But there are two lines of pushback on this. One is not particularly persuasive, but the other would appear to exonerate the general of having made this decision on his own.

First, we have Jennifer Griffin of Fox News reporting, based on anonymous sources, that Milley had many staffers in the room:

By itself, this does not tell us much. Of course, a general talking to a foreign military leader will have his own staff in the room. If he is arrogating authority from the president, it is more rather than less dangerous that he has help. The question, however, is whether the senior political leadership was in the loop. That is where the additional reports from Jonathan Swan of Axios and Josh Rogin of the Post come into the picture. Swan reports, based on anonymous sources, that Milley was acting on the instructions of then–Defense Secretary Mark Esper:

Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper worried the Chinese were misreading the situation and that their misperception could lead to a conflict nobody wanted.

  • Esper directed his policy office to issue a backchannel message to the Chinese to reassure them the U.S. had no intention of seeking a military confrontation. The message: Don’t over-read what you’re seeing in Washington; we have no intention to attack; and let’s keep lines of communication open.
  • These backchannel communications were handled a couple of levels below Esper, one of the sources said. U.S. officials involved thought the Chinese received the initial message well. Milley followed up later in the month with a call to his Chinese counterpart to reiterate the message, two of the sources confirmed.
  • It’s unclear whether anyone at the Pentagon told President Trump or the White House what they were doing.

Around the same time Esper learned of the Chinese concerns, he also learned that a long-planned deployment to Asia had been moved up a couple of weeks earlier than previously planned, to accommodate COVID quarantine protocols.

  • Esper told colleagues the last thing the Chinese needed to see at that moment — when they were already misreading Washington’s intentions — was more planes, according to one of the sources.

  • Esper went so far as to delay this long planned exercise in Asia until after the election, to lower the temperature.

Rogin, whom the Post should probably have involved before reporting the Woodward/Costa story as fact, adds, based on anonymous sources, that a source confirms Swan’s account:

Milley has issued, through a spokesman, a carefully worded statement that he was coordinating with the Defense Department, but not saying explicitly that he was working on Esper’s instructions:

If General Milley was following Esper’s lead — something not even hinted by Woodward and Costa — that does not make this a total nonstory. There is still the question of whether the secretary of defense was undermining the president. But it does exonerate the general of having done what the Post previously reported, because the buck stops with his civilian boss. Given the gravity of the charge, Congress is entitled to more than unnamed sources. General Milley is due to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 28, and he should be walked on the record through the Woodward and Costa report and asked, under oath, whether he said what was reported, whether he did so under the direction of the secretary of defense, and whether he was the source for the Woodward and Costa story.

In the meantime, the rest of us have one more reason to mistrust things that we’re told by Bob Woodward.

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