In testimony, Gen. Milley casts doubt on book's claims about anti-Trump comments and actions

By Gary Abernathy

Was Milley worried Trump had gone Full Metal Jacket?

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week contradicted details of a new book that claims that Milley was so concerned about Donald Trump’s temperament and overall mental health as his presidency neared its conclusion that he acted behind the scenes to prevent a nuclear war, and agreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Trump was unstable.

In his testimony this week, Milley retreated to the standard “I haven’t read it” when asked whether the authors got it wrong. But in other cases, he responded when excerpts or summaries were presented to him.

Here’s an excerpt from the book in question, “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa:

Making matters even more dire, Milley was certain Trump had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, with Trump now all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies. The scenes of a screaming Trump in the Oval Office resembled Full Metal Jacket, the 1987 movie featuring a Marine gunnery sergeant who viciously rages at recruits with dehumanizing obscenities. “You never know what a president’s trigger point is,” Milley told senior staff. When might events and pressures come together to cause a president to order military action?

The authors write that at one point, Milley — concerned that China thought Trump was preparing an attack — contacted Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, and said, “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.”

The notion that Milley would promise to give China a heads up if an attack was imminent is outrageous of course, and maybe even treasonous. During congressional testimony this week, Milley downplayed the exchange.

“I would never tip off any enemy to any kind of surprise thing that we were going to do. That's a different context than that conversation,” Milley testified. “They were concerned that we, President Trump, was going to launch an attack. He was not going to launch an attack. I knew he wasn't going to launch an attack. At the direction of the secretary of defense, I engaged the Chinese.”

Milley added later, “As part of that conversation, I said, ‘General Li, there is not going to be a war, there's not going to be an attack between great powers. And if there was, the tensions would build up, there would be calls going back and forth from all kinds of senior officials.’ I said, ‘Hell, General, I'll probably give you a call, but we're not going to attack you, trust me, we're not going to attack you.”

That still sounds like an admission that Milley would “probably” give China a heads up if an attack was coming — even as he promises an attack wasn’t on the table.

Reporting about the book on Sept. 14, a Washington Post story said, “Li remained rattled, and Milley, who did not relay the conversation to Trump, according to the book, understood why. The chairman, 62 at the time and chosen by Trump in 2018, believed the president had suffered a mental decline after the election, the authors write, a view he communicated to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a phone call on Jan. 8. He agreed with her evaluation that Trump was unstable, according to a call transcript obtained by the authors.”

This week, Milley pushed back on assertions that he had “gone rogue.” He insisted that the two calls he had with Li were properly coordinated and approved by Trump administration officials, and that the contents of the calls were shared with the appropriate individuals who reported to the president. Milley also flat-out denied questioning Trump’s mental health in conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States,” Milley said Wednesday.

In the clip above, Milley, under questioning by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), said that when he told Pelosi “I agree with you on everything,” he meant only that safeguards are crucial to prevent accidental or illegal nuclear launches, not that Trump was unstable.

“I am not agreeing with her assessment of the president,” Milley testified.

In the same clip, Milley also denied that he considered the Epoch Times and Newsmax domestic terrorists, despite including them in his daily journal on a list — according to the book — that he “summarized” as “Big Threat: domestic terrorism.”

Does he consider Newsmax and the Epoch Times domestic terrorists? “Not at all,” he said Wednesday. Apparently their inclusion on his list was just a “note to self” not to miss their latest editions.

Books are written to be sold. We all understand that. The authors and publishers take content and present it in the most noteworthy or sensational way to get media attention and, subsequently, reader interest. Some might say that the facts as shared in their book by Woodward and Costa, and this week by Milley, are essentially the same, but with slightly different takes. That might be true in some cases, such as Milley’s calls with China. But in other cases, Milley flat-out denies the book’s assertions.

So, the world is left to decide whether “Peril” greatly exaggerates or even inaccurately reports Milley’s actions, worries and statements at the time, or whether Milley is not being candid in his testimony this week. In a number of instances, it has to be one or the other.

The book implies that Milley was worried about an off-the-rails Trump, and was scrambling behind the scenes in secret conversations to keep the U.S. out of war while assuring Pelosi that there were safeguards against an unstable Trump — a mental assessment on which they reportedly agreed — launching a spur-of-the-moment nuclear strike.

By contrast, Milley testified this week that — knowing Trump had no intention of attacking China — his calls to reassure China were routine diplomacy and fully coordinated with the appropriate administration officials, and that he never did and never would express a conclusion that the president was mentally unstable.

When it comes to these and the other discrepancies, whose account do we believe?

Some journalists call for ending fairness in GOP coverage

There are an increasing number of calls within the ranks of journalism for the media to basically stop treating the Republican Party as an equal or legitimate counterpart to the Democratic Party. The latest such notion comes from Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune.

Excerpts from what Jacob tweeted this week:

I used to edit Page 1 stories for the Chicago Tribune, including many from Washington. In this thread, I explain why the media (including me) have been unintentionally complicit in the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy… The Republicans have overwhelmed the media with corruption. They’ve created scandal fatigue, prompting journalists to do something I call ethics norming. That’s when something that would have been a huge scandal in the recent past is considered normal now… The Republicans have pulled off quite a trick. If news is defined as something unusual happening, GOP corruption is not news because the party is so widely corrupt. Some media have turned off their outrage impulse and decided that corruption is normal.

He concludes, “What’s needed is new framing. Not party-oriented but democracy-oriented. Truth-oriented. The media shouldn't elevate liars in the interest of ‘fairness.’ Yes, media should be fair – to the readers, to the facts. But not to the 2-party system. To our democracy.”

Many others are climbing on the bandwagon of a “new framing” that basically would report on the Democratic Party as the home of truth, justice and the American way, and the Republican Party as the cult of liars and the threat to democracy. In other words, quit treating the GOP as the counterpart of the Democrats, and give it no respect.

Some would argue this has already been happening for a long time. Now, some in the media just want to codify it into their journalism stylebooks. It’s the final step in the journey among some journalists on the left to completely discredit anything with which they disagree.

So, who is the counterpart to the Democrats? Why, no one, apparently.

Here’s the tweet and its thread:

Just for fun, here’s a follow-up tweet to put things in context, politically.

Talking science and abortion on In House Warrior

It was a pleasure being a guest on the In House Warrior podcast with host Richard Levick discussing my recent Washington Post column on how scientific advances might impact abortion law. A couple of other subjects came up, too.

The Levick company provides risk management and public relations services to clients, but also produces several podcasts “including a daily program for the Corporate Counsel Business Journal called In House Warrior; a weekly program with Clark Atlanta University for companies interested in leading in the African American and minority business communities called The Innovators; a weekly program with Foreign Lobby Report called The Influencers; a weekly program with Michael Zeldin of CNN to discuss current events with thought leaders and newsmakers called Real Washington;  a weekly program on emerging companies called From Garage to Global; and a podcast on board leadership called Great Governance,” as described by its website.

You can listen to our conversation below.

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