Milley spokesman defends calls with China as 'vital' to 'avoiding unintended consequences or conflict'

Milley did not go outside of civilian control of the military, spokesman asserts, amid heavy criticism

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A spokesperson for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley is defending allegations of "secret" calls with his Chinese counterpart, saying the conversations are "vital" to "reducing tensions" and "avoiding unintended consequences or conflict," maintaining that the calls were coordinated with high-level defense officials. 

"The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia. These conversations remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict," Milley spokesman Col. Dave Butler said in a statement Wednesday. 

Butler said that Milley's calls "with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability." 

"All calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency," Butler said.

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"Also in keeping with his responsibilities as senior military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense, General Milley frequently conducts meetings with uniformed leaders across the Services to ensure all leaders are aware of current issues," Butler continued. "The meeting regarding nuclear weapons protocols was to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject." 

Butler added: "General Milley continues to act and advise within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military and his oath to the Constitution."

The allegations, which are included in the book "Peril," co-written by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, says that Milley made two secret phone calls, both to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army. The book alleges that the phone calls took place prior to the 2020 presidential election, on Oct. 30, 2020, and then two days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, on Jan. 8, 2021.  

Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley listens during a briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan. 

Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley listens during a briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The book claims Milley contacted Li after he had reviewed intelligence that suggested Chinese officials believed the United States was planning an attack on China amid military exercises in the South China Sea.

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The authors of the book also claim Milley contacted Li a second time to reassure him that the U.S. would not make any type of advances or attack China in any form, as Milley promised, "We are 100% steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes."

But Fox News spoke with multiple individuals who were in the room during the two phone calls Milley had with Li. The calls were coordinated with the Defense secretary’s office. 

"They were not secret," a U.S. official told Fox News about the calls, which took place over video teleconference. 

Fox News has learned there were about 15 people present for the calls. Sources told Fox News that there were multiple notetakers present, and said the calls were both conducted with full knowledge of then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller. 

A U.S. official familiar said Milley routinely calls his Chinese and Russian counterparts, and explained that he has been speaking to Li for about five years. The source said this is normal for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

According to the official, there was full civilian oversight of the phone calls, including a representative of the State Department and Milley’s political adviser. Notes of the calls were taken and a summary note was sent to the Defense secretary and the intelligence community, the official said. 

"This was not done like some sort of conspiratorial thing," another participant who overheard the conversation told Fox News. 

According to those familiar, the October phone call had several topics, one of which focused on the election. The Chinese, according to the sources, were concerned about, what they saw as, instability in the U.S. system. Milley, according to a source, reassured his counterpart that the U.S. is a stable democracy. 

Another source said the call was in the context of assuring adversaries that the United States were not planning any military action. 

Fox News has learned that Milley had up to 20 phone calls with Li and NATO allies in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot in an effort to reassure them that the U.S. government was stable, and to reassure China that the U.S. did not plan a surprise attack – all in an effort to lower tensions with China during the interim period between the election and inauguration, and to project stability so that adversaries of the U.S. did not take advantage of the domestic turmoil during that period. 

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"It was a stability, confidence building measure, not subversive," another official present for the call said, adding that reporting about Milley’s attempt to insert himself into nuclear chain of command as "even more ridiculous." 

Meanwhile, the Woodward-Costa book also addresses a phone call between Milley and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who discussed her concerns that Trump was "crazy" following the Capitol riot, and implored Milley to take the nuclear football.

According to sources, Milley reassured Pelosi that "the nuclear weapons are fine," and told the speaker that "we have procedures, checks and balances." 

Sources told Fox News that Milley then reached out to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hyten and a number of other officials to review and understand the procedures. 

"The president has the sole power to launch nuclear weapons but the president doesn’t launch nuclear weapons alone," an official told Fox News. 

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The review lasted approximately 10 minutes, and was intended to remind that there would be a conference call should the president – any president – decide to launch a nuclear weapon. 

"That is standard operating procedure," an official said. 

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not in the chain of command for authorizing use of force or a nuclear launch, but rather is the top military adviser to the president. The launch of a nuclear weapons requires layers of verification through the Pentagon and U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska, which oversees all nuclear forces. At no point did Milley insert himself into that chain of command, according to those familiar with the conversations including members of the Joint Chiefs.

Milley is set to testify on Sept. 28 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing was set to focus on Afghanistan, but officials now expect Milley will answer questions, under oath, emanating from from the Woodward-Costa book. 

"This book raises some serious concerns and I would say, some of the allegations seem somewhat far-fetched to me," Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas told Fox News Wednesday, adding that Milley is "going to be testifying in front of Congress in just a few days, and we’ll address these concerns." 

"We don’t want to jump to conclusions yet, but we’ll certainly vet them and see exactly what happened," Cotton said. 

He added: "We will ensure he addresses it, but this is one of those claims, obviously, that seems a little farfetched." 

"The idea that an American military general is going to warn an adversary that an attack is coming, as you say, when Donald Trump was never even thinking about a military attack against China," Cotton said. "The whole thing is pretty far-fetched."