Why Milley checked nuclear procedures, called China in final days of Trump presidency

Correction: The headline on this story has been updated to accurately reflect the steps Milley took to secure the nuclear launch process.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stunning new revelations tonight about how concerned the nation's top military officer was about former President Donald Trump's behaviors and actions around last year's election and the January insurrection.

    They come from a yet-to-be-released book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post. And they raise serious questions about the end of the Trump administration, the perception of the former president's fitness for the job, and civil-military relations.

    Here to explore all of this are White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor and foreign affairs and defense correspondent Nick Schifrin.

    So, Nick, to you first.

    What steps have you learned that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, took around the time of the election?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In January, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called his counterpart, General Zuocheng — that's a photo of the two of them there actually taken years before in Beijing.

    And what I'm about to report, Judy, is all from a defense official, three former senior defense officials, a former senior Trump administration official, and a senior congressional official.

    At the time, Milley was extremely concerned about what President Trump was capable of. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had been terminated. The January 6 attack had just occurred and senior Pentagon officials had been replaced with Trump loyalists.

    And so Milley talked to every day with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They worked together to try and ensure there was continuity right at the end of the Trump administration, ensure there was no surprises on national security.

    And part of that was reassuring adversaries that there was going to be continuity from Trump to Biden. That call was what Milley made to General Li, that there was going to be no surprises. That's General Li there.

    Now, the context for the call was back in October. That's when the Chinese — U.S. believed that the Chinese feared some kind of U.S. attack, some kind of October surprise. And so senior civilian Pentagon officials called their counterparts and reassured them that, no, there was no imminent U.S. attack.

    As part of that reassurance, General Milley called his counterpart back in October to reassure him of the same thing. And we have some of the words from that call, thanks to the Woodward-Costa book.

    What General Milley told General Li that time is: "General Li, you and I have known each other for 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."

    Now, those words, "I'm going to tell you ahead of time," are extraordinary, Judy. But these defense officials who I have been talking to emphasize that the message, the core message, what Milley was trying to say, reassurance, there is not going to be an attack by the U.S. on China, that was wrong, and that that message of reassurance was the same thing that the Pentagon civilian leadership wanted.

  • Judy Woodruff:


    Now to Yamiche.

    From your reporting, who else have you learned that General Milley called?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, General Milley was taking extraordinary steps and having extraordinary conversations with a number of people, chief among them, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

    this, of course, at the time on January 8, when a call was made from Speaker Pelosi to General Milley saying: I want to know what you're doing to make sure that former President Trump is not allowed to misuse the nuclear codes or not allowed to get into some sort of military action that is not wise.

    During that call — we want to put it up for folks — during that call, Speaker Pelosi said this of President — of former President Trump: "He's crazy. You know he's crazy. He's crazy. And what he did yesterday," referring to the Capitol seize, the Capitol attack on January 6, "what he did yesterday is further evidence of his craziness."

    And, remarkably, General Milley replied: "I agree with you on everything."

    Now, those are sources on Capitol Hill confirming those exact words to me tonight.

    And what this really shows you is that someone like General Milley, who is not seen as political, not seen as a Democrat or Republican, here he is on the phone with a Democrat who is a target of former President Trump's anger, saying: "I agree with you."

    I also want to point out another conversation that General Milley had, and that was with Gina Haspel. She was the former director of the CIA. And here's what Gina Haspel reportedly told General Milley: "We are on the way to a right-wing coup," again, going back to this idea of January 6 really shaking people up.

    It's extraordinary conversations really underlying the idea that former President Trump was seen as someone who was a loose cannon in his own administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, remarkable.

    And, Nick, back to you.

    You have told us that you have an understanding now of what it was that General Milley did with regard to U.S. policy toward deploying nuclear weapons.

  • Nick Schifrin:


    So, this is a routine meeting. I'm going to emphasize that, a routine meeting even though the context, as Yamiche just explained, truly was extraordinary. So, in January, there was a prescheduled quarterly check-in with Nuclear Command.

    And a defense official confirms that Milley reiterated that the reporting process included him and that he should be called in the event of any nuclear order from the president. He made sure even that the participants at that meeting confirmed that they would call him.

    Now, technically, that is not the process. Nuclear authority is designed to be fast. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not in the chain of command. Even the secretary of defense isn't in the chain of command when it comes to launching a nuclear weapon.

    But there's an understanding, senior officials tell me, that many senior officials would be informed of the — in the event of any kind of nuclear order, and that's what Milley reiterated in January during that meeting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, given all this, Yamiche, tell us what your sources inside the Biden White House and in the former Trump administration are saying to you about all this.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Officials inside the Biden White House are being very tight-lipped about this, though a couple of them are telling me that this underscores the idea that President Biden needed to run and needed to defeat former President Trump because he was unstable and not someone trusted even within his own administration by military officials.

    Now, in talking to a number of Trump allies and former Trump officials, they are very, very angry. They said that this in some ways really proves this idea of a deep state, that there were people working inside the Trump administration to try to undermine President Trump.

    Now, you have even Senator Marco Rubio, who is, of course, a Republican from Florida. He is now calling on President Biden to dismiss immediately General Milley, saying that he undermined the commander in chief.

    I also should point out that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman — this is someone who is not a Trump ally. He is someone who testified in Congress on that first impeachment of former President Trump, when he said that he overheard that call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, saying that he was trying to dig for information for Joe — against Joe Biden, he was alarmed and really reported that call to the National Security Council, where he was working.

    He is now saying that General Mark Milley should resign because he broke the chain of command. So that's not just Trump allies. That's also a military official who himself found the actions of former President Trump to be unstable.

    But he, of course, feels like he went through the chain of command by really saying to his officials and his higher-ups, this is what I'm concerned about.

    So, this is really, in some ways, an extraordinary moment, where you're seeing people who are not usually allied on the message saying General Milley here probably took a step too far.

    Of course, Democrats say this needed to happen, because General Milley was trying to save and protect the country from a president who was, at the time, they believe, unstable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is a developing story. And we thank both of you for this important reporting.

    Yamiche and Nick, thank you both.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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