Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Thursday that he had “confidence” in Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — despite an ongoing controversy over calls he reportedly made to a top Chinese general in the last weeks of the Trump administration.
The conversations between Milley and People’s Liberation Army Gen. Li Zuocheng are detailed in the forthcoming book “Peril,” authored by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post.
In one of the calls, which took place on Oct. 30 of last year, Milley reportedly told Li that the US had no intention of attacking China and added that if then-President Donald Trump ordered military action, “I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
The report has caused an uproar among Republican lawmakers who have called on Milley to explain his actions. Some have said America’s highest-ranking military official should resign or be fired, while Trump himself suggested in a statement this week that Milley had committed “TREASON”.
When Andrea Mitchell of NBC News asked Austin Thursday to “respond to those Republicans on the Hill — including, of course, the former president — demanding the firing of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” Austin answered that “all of what’s in that book happened before I became secretary of defense, so I can’t comment on that as well.”
“I have confidence in General Milley,” Austin added.
The Biden administration has stood squarely behind Milley, with the president telling reporters Wednesday that “I have great confidence” in the general.
A spokesman for the Joint Staff confirmed Wednesday that the calls between Milley and Li took place and insisted that they were “in keeping with [his] duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.”
“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia,” said the spokesman, Col. Dave Butler. “These conversations remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict.”
Woodward and Costa’s book, due out Sept. 21, also reports that Biden overruled both Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the recent withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
According to the authors, Austin proposed a “gated” pullout that would take place in three or four stages to allow a greater chance of a negotiated settlement. However, the president reportedly overruled the idea, which he described as “mission creep.”
Austin declined to comment on any other aspect of the book at Thursday’s event with Blinken and their Australian counterparts.
Milley himself has not spoken publicly since the initial reports of his phone calls. He is scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28 to discuss the Afghan withdrawal.