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2021: The Year Mark Milley Halted Nuclear Chaos

In the days following the election, fears mounted that an unhinged Trump might bomb Iran. The Joint Chiefs Chairman alerted both his team and the Chinese
General Mark Milley and President Donald Trump

CAPITOL HILL, THREE YEARS ON

COUP IN WASHINGTON. In the days following the election, fears mounted that an unhinged Trump might bomb Iran. The Joint Chiefs Chairman alerted both his team and the Chinese: it wouldn’t happen.

by Luca Ciarrocca

“How do we secure the nuclear missiles?” This question, posed during a call between the highest-ranking military officer in America and the third in line for the presidential succession, encapsulated the dramatic hours following the January 6th, 2021 assault on Capitol Hill – the failed coup by Trump loyalists.

It was General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President’s principal military advisor, who received the call from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on January 8th. She was deeply alarmed by the chaos in Washington, with Congress besieged by thousands of agitators stirred up by Trump’s incendiary speech. Milley sought to reassure her that despite the insurrection, in terms of national security, there were “plenty of checks in the system.” Most importantly, in answer to her initial question, “the nuclear weapons are secure.”

This was critical because the President – with his infamous ‘nuclear football’ – has the final say on deploying nuclear arms. And Trump, during those days, seemed deranged.

In the final weeks of 2020, Milley became convinced that Trump, psychologically destabilized by his November 3rd electoral defeat, posed an imminent and real danger. The populist tycoon had lost by a wide margin (7 million fewer votes than Biden) yet continued to insist the elections were “rigged,” “stolen.” Trump, according to the general, “had undergone mental decline” following the vote, becoming “almost maniacal,” “screaming at senior advisors and staff members, desperately clinging to power, denying reality, and spreading lies,” Milley would later explain.

When the defeated President incited thousands of his fans to march on Capitol Hill on January 6th, resulting in violence, damage, five deaths, and the arrest of 570 people, the Joint Chiefs Chairman realized he couldn’t just stand by. After his call with Pelosi, he summoned a secret meeting in his Pentagon office with the top brass of the Armed Forces – the participants of the National Military Command Center, the Defense Ministry’s war room. The goal: to review the military engagement procedures with enemies, including the launch of nuclear missiles. He reiterated that only the President could give the order but – here’s the startling new development – he, Milley, had to be consulted for the final okay.

The Chairman (appointed by Trump himself) instructed the Pentagon’s top echelons to not take orders from anyone – not even the President holed up in the Oval Office – unless he was involved. “No matter what you’re told, you follow the procedure. Follow the procedure. And I’m part of that procedure,” he ordered his subordinates. “And stay alert at all times.” Milley (now retired) then made two more calls. The first to National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone (“keep your antennas up… keep watching, scan every signal…”) and the second to CIA Director Gina Haspel: “Monitor everything very aggressively, 360 degrees.” The CIA chief confirmed the escalating tension scenario: “We’re heading towards a right-wing coup.” “The whole affair is madness. He’s behaving like a six-year-old throwing a tantrum.” Haspel feared Trump might try to attack Iran, to prove to the world he still held full powers and an aggressive international strategy.

The urgency of the “available precautions” to prevent the defeated President from launching nuclear missiles was confirmed in a letter Pelosi sent to the Democratic caucus. “This morning, I spoke on the phone with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Mark Milley, to discuss the available precautions to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike,” the letter read. It arrived as Democrats were doing everything to remove Trump from office, pursuing two parallel paths: via an intervention by Vice President Mike Pence and some Cabinet members (two resigned, Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao), and with a Congressional impeachment request (which happened, but Trump was narrowly saved thanks to some GOP congress members).

The tumultuous hours of the Pelosi-Milley call were scrutinized by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post, the former the author of the Watergate scoop that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, the latter a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. In their book Peril, Woodward and Costa revealed further details on the geopolitical front. Milley, it’s reported in “Peril,” called his Chinese counterpart, at least twice: just before the November elections and shortly after the failed coup. The well-established direct relationship the U.S. supreme commander had woven with Li Zuocheng, General of the People’s Liberation Army of China and chief of the joint staff department of the Central Military Commission in Beijing, was providential. With Washington engulfed in instability, it was vital to avoid armed conflict between the two superpowers. Every “good faith precaution” was needed to ensure there was no historic breakdown of the international order, no accidental war with China or other countries, and no use of nuclear weapons,” Milley later explained to the Senate Defense Committee. To make himself understood, the American told the Chinese: “We have a plane with four engines, and three are out. We don’t have a landing gear. But we’re going to land this plane safely.”

It sounds like geopolitical fantasy, but Milley believed that China, already alert due to Trump’s psychotic behavior, might militarily attack the United States if Xi Jinping felt threatened by an unpredictable, unstable, and vindictive White House. An “extraordinary risk.” So something unprecedented happened. The military leaders of the two rival superpowers found themselves united by a common mission: to prevent the outbreak of World War III.

The first call took place on October 30th, 2020, four days before the presidential election, and the second on January 8th, 2021, two days after the assault on Capitol Hill. Milley had reviewed a top-secret report from the Pentagon’s intelligence services, which also weighed tensions over Taiwan, with U.S. Navy exercises in the South China Sea, exacerbated by Trump’s warmongering anti-China rhetoric. The sharp confrontation between the superpowers was intensified by the neo-McCarthyism against anything “Chinese”: from Beijing’s high-tech companies listed on Wall Street to popular apps like TikTok, not to mention COVID-19 labeled as the “Chinese virus.” “General Li, I want to reassure you, our government is stable and everything will be fine,” Milley explained to his counterpart. “We’re one hundred percent stable. Everything’s fine. Democracy can sometimes be messy (…) but we have no intention of conducting any military operations against you.” Milley even assured he would preemptively warn Li Zuocheng in the event of a missile launch. “You and I have known each other for five years now. If we’re forced to, I’ll call you in advance. It won’t be a surprise.”

Today the situation is, in many ways, worse. As the story of January 6th, 2021 confirms, pre-established protocols are crucial, but the rationality of leaders is of fundamental importance. Nonetheless, we’re all always in danger.

Il Fatto Quotidiano, January 6, 2024

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