The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley, has defended himself against charges of insubordination for taking actions aimed at mitigating the threat of Donald Trump starting a war in his last weeks as president.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people and the constitution hasn’t changed and will never change,” Milley told the Senate armed services committee on Tuesday. “As long as I have a breath to give, my loyalty is absolute.”
Milley was facing hostile Republicans, some of whom have demanded his resignation following revelations that he spoke twice to his Chinese counterpart, reassuring him that the US would not launch a surprise attack.
The revelations are contained in a new book, Peril, by the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
According to the book, Milley also ordered officers assigned to the Pentagon war room to let him know if Trump ordered a nuclear launch, despite the fact that the chairman of the joint chiefs is not in the chain of command.
The general said his two calls with the Chinese army chief followed intelligence suggesting China was fearful of an attack, and were intended to defuse tensions.
“My message again was consistent: ‘Stay calm, steady and de-escalate.’ We are not going to attack you,’” Milley said, at one of the mostly closely scrutinised interrogations of top US military leaders in more than a decade.
He said the calls were closely coordinated with the defense secretary and other senior officials in the Trump administration, and that several senior Pentagon officials sat in on the calls.
On the question of his actions on nuclear launch procedures, he said he had a responsibility to insert himself into those procedures in order to be able to perform his role to advise the president properly.
“By law I am not in the chain of command and I know that,” he said. “However, by presidential directive, and [defense department] instruction, I am in the chain of communication to fulfil my legal statutory role as the president’s primary military adviser.”
Woodward and Costa also give an account of a conversation with the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in which she expresses her alarm over Trump’s mental health and his sole authority to launch nuclear weapons.
Milley confirmed the call but insisted, in remarks not included in his prepared testimony: “I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.
“My oath is to support the constitution of the United States of America. Against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Milley said, staring at the Senate committee. “And I will never turn my back on that oath. I firmly believe in civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle essential to the health of this republic, and I’m committed to ensuring that the military stays clear of domestic politics.”
The formal purpose of the Senate hearing was to hear testimony on “the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counter-terrorism operations”.
Milley, alongside the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, and the head of US central command, Gen Kenneth McKenzie, also faced stern questioning from both sides over the chaotic last days of the 20-year US military presence in Afghanistan, and were asked why many Afghans granted special immigrant visas or with visa applications pending were left to fend for themselves after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
McKenzie was also likely to face questions about a 29 August drone strike that was meant to target an Islamic State car bomb but instead killed 10 members of a family, seven of them children.
Milley deemed it a “righteous strike” before all the evidence was available, and all three men will have to respond to concerns that such deadly mistakes could become more concerning as the US resorts to an over-the-horizon approach to counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan in the future, flying long-distance bombing sorties with little or no human intelligence on the ground to guide attacks.