Milley and Woodward Revisited
A follow-up to yesterday's analysis.
A lot of folks pushing back on the excerpts regarding Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in Bob Woodward’s latest book (co-authored with Robert Costa) have pointed to a 2013 Slate essay by Tanner Colby. (It’s also reproduced in full at National Post for those who aren’t Slate Plus subscribers.)
Over the course of a year, page by page, source by source, I re-reported and rewrote one of Bob Woodward’s books.
Wired is an anomaly in the Woodward catalog, the only book he’s ever written about a subject other than Washington. As such, it’s rarely cited by his critics. But Wired’s outlier status is the very thing that makes it such a fascinating piece of Woodwardology. Because he was forced to work outside of his comfort zone, his strengths and his weaknesses can be seen in sharper relief.
Wired is an infuriating piece of work. There’s never a smoking gun like an outright falsehood or a brazen ethical breach. And yet, in the final product, a lot of what Woodward writes comes off as being not quite right — some of it to the point where it can feel quite wrong. Getting the facts is only part of the equation. You have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It’s here that Woodward fails.
Over and over during the course of my reporting I’d hear a story that conflicted with Woodward’s account in Wired. I’d run back to Woodward’s index, look up the offending passage, and realize that, well, no, he’d put down the mechanics of the story more or less as they’d happened. But he’d so mangled the meaning and the context that his version had nothing to do with what I concluded had actually transpired.
Like a funhouse mirror, Woodward’s prose distorts what it purports to reflect, and misses the bigger picture.
Woodward’s detractors like to say that he’s little more than a stenographer — and they’re right. In Wired, he takes what he is told and simply puts it down in chronological order with no sense of proportionality, nuance or understanding.
Among those referencing the essay is defense journalist Wesley Morgan who observes, “Anyone who’s been deep in the weeds on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and then read Woodward’s distorted, DC-centric versions of those wars, will recognize this—the facts right, some of them new and interesting, but the context and analysis all wrong.”
It’s not fully clear that that is what’s happened here but there are preliminary signals in that direction.
Milley’s PAO put out the following message yesterday:
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.
His 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.
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. 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.
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.
This is wildly different from the account in the Woodward-Costa book, as reported by WaPo:
In a pair of secret phone calls, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, that the United States would not strike, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter Robert Costa.
One call took place on Oct. 30, 2020, four days before the election that unseated President Donald Trump, and the other on Jan. 8, 2021, two days after the Capitol siege carried out by his supporters in a quest to cancel the vote.
The first call was prompted by Milley’s review of intelligence suggesting the Chinese believed the United States was preparing to attack. That belief, the authors write, was based on tensions over military exercises in the South China Sea, and deepened by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward China.
“General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley told him. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”
In the book’s account, Milley went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack, stressing the rapport they’d established through a backchannel. “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.”
So, the calls were “secret” in the sense of being classified, not in the sense of being furtive. In the context of an open meeting in which Milley and others were simply reassuring a worried Chinese defense chief that the United States is not planning a surprise attack on that country, the conversation seems much more innocuous. Dispelling misconceptions and allaying fears is why chiefs of defense maintain an open dialog.
In the context of a series of reports that Milley was trying to reign in a rogue President by any means necessary, a furtive call to the Chinese CHOD telling him that he would warn him in the event said President launched an attack is outrageous. But, in a forum with so many people present, it seems vastly different—a simple reminder that there’s regular dialog going on and his counterpart would damn well know if tensions were so high that an attack were imminent. (An Axios report makes it more innocuous still: One source familiar with Milley’s conversations with his Chinese counterpart would only broadly characterize them as Milley saying something to the effect of: “We’ll both know if we’re going to war… there’s not gonna be some surprise attack and there’s no reason for you to do a pre-emptive strike.”)
Readers have also pointed me to Adam Silverman‘s essay last evening at Balloon Juice, “Everyone Needs To Stop the Hysterics Regarding General Milley and Read What Is Actually Being Reported.” Aside from his admonition that there is “NO WAY TO CHECK THE SOURCING because ALL OF HIS SOURCES ARE ANONYMOUS!” he pushes back at the notion that Milley was doing anything unusual when he “secretly” gathered his senior officers and told them to check with him in the event Trump issued go orders.
The US Air Force’s own doctrine places the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the process, not to countermand orders, not to contradict them, but to transmit them from the president and/or the president’s advisors (Assistant to the President-National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense) to the appropriate combatant commanders. Provided Woodward and Costa’s reporting is correct, what GEN Milley appears to have done was to clarify the doctrinal process and procedure. And there’s a very good reason he did that. There was no lawfully, Senate approved Secretary of Defense. There was no lawfully, Senate approved Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. In the White House, Mark Meadows was the Acting Chief of Staff, whatever acting really means in regard to a position that does not require Senate confirmation and in which the person holding the job serves at the pleasure of the president. Additionally, the Acing Chief of Staff, to the acting Secretary of Defense, was Kash Patel, who is one of Devin Nunes’ stooges.
I think a good argument could be made that the civilian portion of civilian control of the military had broken down. The only people in the chain of command at that point who were lawfully in their positions were Trump who was president and the senior uniformed leadership.
While I agree that there was room for debate as to whether Christopher Miller (who has expressed his outrage over Milley’s purported actions) was lawfully serving as Acting Secretary of Defense pursuant to the provisions of the Vacancies Act, I disagree that it had any bearing here. It’s the job of Congress and the courts to police such matters, not that of military officers or other bureaucrats. Certainly, for Milley to simply appoint himself the De Facto SECDEF (which, I hasten to add, there’s no reason to believe he had) would be far more outrageous than the elected President bypassing his appointed Deputy SECDEF for the Senate-confirmed Director of the National Counterintelligence Center who had previously been Senate-confirmed as Assistant Secretary of Defense.
But, more to the point, Silverman is right that it is normal order for the Secretary of Defense to issue orders to his Combatant Commander through the person of the Chairman. (It’s never been clear to me why that’s the process but it’s been the practice for a very long time.)
Still, in the context of a neither confirmed nor denied story that Milley had reassured Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that Trump would not be able to launch a nuclear strike without military interference, this still raises a red flag. To be sure, military officers are obligated—as are other government officials—to refuse to carry out illegal orders. But the first military officer in the relevant chain of command here is the commanding general of US Strategic Command, not the Chairman. (While the presumption is that any order coming from the President is legal, I do think that the STRATCOM chief would balk at an out-of-the-blue order to launch a nuclear first strike on China, North Korea, Iran, or whomever and demand more information. And rightly so.)
Again, I fully recognize that Trump was a uniquely bad and dangerous President who never should have had the proverbial keys to America’s nuclear arsenal. Our system is predicated on the commander-in-chief being a decent human being in full control of his faculties and surrounded by a Vice President and Cabinet prepared to have him removed if he is no longer fit. But I continue to think those wishing for our military leaders to appoint themselves the ultimate guardians of the Republic on the basis that Milley seemed prepared to disobey Trump will not be happy for that to become the new norm.
“Our system is predicated on the commander-in-chief being a decent human being in full control of his faculties and surrounded by a Vice President and Cabinet prepared to have him removed if he is no longer fit.”
And a Congress prepared to have the President removed as well.
@Moosebreath: Yes. As Steven Taylor has repeatedly noted, the Framers completely failed to anticipate the rise of political parties. Prior to Trump, two Presidents were impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Not a single Senator of their party voted to convict. That changed, marginally, with the two Trump impeachments but not enough to matter. (It appears, although was not fully tested, that Senate Republicans were ultimately ready to do the right thing WRT Richard Nixon.)
Moosebreath, the problem is not that Congress is not prepared to remove someone from office that they feel is danger to our country, it is that Congress is only prepared to remove said individual if they have a D in front of their name. Anyone who does not believe that if this scenario played out under a Biden/Obama/Hillary Presidency, that McConnell and his cronies in Congress would vote them out of office in a New York Minute, well I have some great swampland to sell you in a place we like to call Florida.
The more that I think I about the Trump years in office, the more I come to the conclusion that Trump was not the greatest threat to our country, rather it is McConnell and his failure to carry out the duties of Congress.
Trump was President for 4 years, Presidents come and go as the position is by its nature transitory and not one you can keep for life, but McConnell is dug into Congress like an Alabama tick (thank you Jesse Ventura) and has been derelict in his duty for well, decades.
That really is the problem, not MTG, Boebert, and other clowns in Congress, because if McConnell had the balls to tell them to act like adults and do their job they would snap to attention and say yes sir!
That someone as powerful as McConnell is “afraid” of members of his base who thorough no fault of their own, might be some of the most ill-informed folks out there, well…that is the problem.
Manchin should not have to twist McConnell’s arm to get him to sit down and hash out a spending bill compromise. That it is such a problem/hassle to figure out the best way to spread the tax payers dollars around to keep this country running is more of an issue than Trump wanting to continue his rallies, as far as I am concerned Trump can come up with the money for daily rallies to attend, I do not care, as that should not be what is stopping McConnell from reaching across the political aisle.
Anyway, I am getting way off-subject but I find it somewhat funny that the rally cry of Milley should resign, or be investigated by Congress, in just a matter of days these rally cries will become a dull roar that folks mostly ignore as the whole issue become more like a mild tempest in a teapot.
Milley just needs to ride this out, the worst thing he could do now is resign as a week from now you will be able to count the number of folks who insist he resign on one hand (I am being flip, but folks get what I am trying to say).
But as you said earlier in your post, standard practice is for the CJCS to communicate that order, so this seems like Milley was basically telling people that if the order isn’t communicated through usual channels – i.e., through him – then those in the formal chain of command should do exactly what you’re saying they should do and confirm the validity of that order before following it?
I agree that we have to be very, very careful about maintaining a stringent norm of civilian control over the military, but as you seem to acknowledge earlier in the post, the hope/belief that military commanders can and will refuse to carry out a manifestly illegal (or deranged) launch order *is* the failsafe protection we rely on in the current system. Indeed, every time I argued with a Trump supporter back in 2016 that this guy was too stupid and unstable to be trusted with sole nuclear launch authority, they handwaved the concern away by claiming the military commanders would never follow an unjustified launch order. And, of course, now those same Trump supporters are all shouting for Milley’s head and waxing philosophical about civilian control of the military. Well, Milley’s actions here strike me as more or less just reminding everyone involved in carrying out a launch order about that failsafe and their role in enacting it should that become necessary. So, it seems to me that you, like the aforementioned Trump supporters, approve of / take comfort from that failsafe in theory but object to it in practice. I guess I’m left wondering what exactly your view is of commanders questioning/delaying/refusing an obviously unhinged nuclear launch order from the President. Given the current “sole Presidential authority” approach, do you approve of the failsafe or not, because this is what it looks like in practice?
@inhumans99: Agreeing that McConnell is a problem, I have to say, the following simply is not true:
@Steven L. Taylor:
Right. McConnell is the enemy to Greene, Boebert, and the rest of the MAGA/Quanon crowd. They’ve made their reputations by being anti-McConnell, whom the base loathes.
Okay Steven, CSK, I concede your point.
I have no desire to argue or belabor my point, it is just amazing that a handful of members of Congress who have been haunting the halls of Congress for in some cases 10-20+ years, that they cannot come together with a plan to make members of Congress who have only been part of the institution of Congress for 30 seconds and counting (very wet behind the ears folks) to act like mature adults.
I guess I did try to belabor my point a little bit, lol. It is just that I feel that folks (with an R in front of their name) who could make a difference if they spoke up are just throwing up their hands and letting the inmates run the asylum, which leaves me a bit speechless (if only right, you all have seen my long as heck posts).
This episode reminded me of this one put out by Axios in May of this year describing Trump’s order to leave Afghanistan. How does this clearly bureaucratic antibody rejection of a Trump infection differ from the current one except in description of Washington breathlessness of an immediate revelation?
Episode 9: Trump’s war with his generals
@R. Dave: First and foremost, Milley is not a commander. He’s a staff officer whose job is as the primary military advisor to POTUS, SECDEF, and the NSC. Second, while it is well-established in law and theory that officers should refuse to follow illegal orders, it’s incredibly fraught in practice.
An example I’ve used before: The lieutenant colonel who genuinely believed Obama was not a natural-born citizen and therefore not legally President was, rightly, court-martialed and not even allowed to argue that Obama wasn’t President. There are processes in place to vet such claims. Lietenant colonels (or, indeed, four-star generals) deciding not to follow orders is not among them.
Yeah, I think it’s becoming clear that Woodward’s “context” is dishonest BS, which was my initial thought before the previous thread descended into an annoying debate about the likelihood of Trump deciding to wake up and randomly nuke China.
I’m pretty convinced that Milley did nothing unusual or untoward, but if anyone has doubts about that, then I still offer my suggestion to declassify the transcripts and get the principals to testify under oath.
@inhumans99: One aspect of the Trump years is the revelation that so many of our elected officials are unexpectedly men and women of weak character devoid of serious foundation. We don’t talk about that enough.
The idea that all that stands between us and nuclear annihilation, not to mention a war crime to dwarf every previous war crime, is officers willing to refuse an order because they’ve decided the order is illegal, is terrifying. That’s not a safeguard, that’s a joke. It’s not reality. Reality is that POTUS can simply push aside any officer who refuses him and find another. Given that the US military is fairly thick with Trumpies, we have at best a temporary delay in annihilation.
In other words, the safeguards do not exist. They are a fantasy. Trump could quite easily have started a war with Iran or China and we’d all be sifting the rubble while the blockheads reassured us it had all been done by the rule book.
The reason why Drs. Joyner and Taylor continue to pretend that General Milley’s action was a travesty is because they don’t really believe a tragedy of this sort could actually happen. Of course ten years ago neither man would have believed half of what we’ve seen since 2016. This failure of imagination – a defining characteristic of conservatives – is why they continue to denigrate the man who may well have saved human civilization, including them, their wives and children. If they actually came to terms with what may well have been a desperately close call, they would feel differently.
I’ve been re-reading the first FLASHMAN book which centers on the British catastrophe in Afghanistan. General Elphinstone – widely regarded as the worst general in British history, and seen clearly by many of the officers around him as weak, sick and incompetent – was obeyed to the end. That end being the massacre of a British army, down to the last man, and the rape, torture and enslavement of thousands of their wives and children. Keep up the discipline, what, what?
If Milley is punished he will be suffering for the sins of the American people. It will be a grave injustice that will send a message to future Milley’s to snap a salute and do what they’re told, regardless of consequence. And if a hundred million people die, well, at least everyone will have followed orders, and that excuse always works, right?
People like Boebert and Greene are popular with their constituents precisely because they are out of control. That’s their brand: being rebels. They’re also nitwits, but that appears to add to their charm for their fans.
I don’t think they can be controlled. MTG got bounced off all her committees. She has nothing to do with her time but make trouble.
Dude, you’re shadowboxing at this point. Milley didn’t do what you think he did.
I wrote about this a year into Trump’s presidency, noting that:
[T]here’s simply nothing the Senate, or the Congress as a whole, can do to stop the President from acting as he sees fit . . . [because] [t]he mere existence of a standing force gives the President enormous leverage.” And that, yes, “the entire system is predicated on swift obedience to the duly elected commander-in-chief. A President hell-bent on launching missiles would simply fire people until he got to ones who would carry out the order.”
Did I seriously think Trump was going to get us into nuclear war? No. But we had enough reason even in 2015 to understand that he would put his personal interest ahead of the national interest and was generally unfit to be commander-in-chief. This was why I refused to support him in the primary and, ultimately, endorsed and voted for his Democratic opponent.
As I concluded that February 2018 piece,
As to Milley, armed with more context than I have yesterday, I think he committed some protocol breaches that further strain civil-military relations but fell short of disobedience or “travesty.” I do, however, believe the STRATCOM commander, not the Chairman, is the military officer who has the duty to decide whether the order is legal. But, as you say, Trump would have simply fired him and anyone else who refused until we got to one who would. The whole system is predicated on instant obedience to the chain of command on the assumption they’re operating legally and in the national interest.
@Scott:..One aspect of the Trump years is the revelation that so many of our elected officials are unexpectedly men and women of weak character devoid of serious foundation. We don’t talk about that enough.
Having spent 35 years travelling to 14 states to work and visiting several others I have to assign this portrayal to many of the electors who chose these members of Congress and the occupants of all 50 Statehouses and Executive Mansions.
And no, this revelation was not unexpected to me.
While I don’t disagree with what you said about parties, it doesn’t really respond to my point.
“Prior to Trump, two Presidents were impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Not a single Senator of their party voted to convict. That changed, marginally, with the two Trump impeachments but not enough to matter. (It appears, although was not fully tested, that Senate Republicans were ultimately ready to do the right thing WRT Richard Nixon.)”
The Andrew Johnson impeachment was a purely partisan affair alleging that he violated a law which if someone proposed today would get laughed out of Congress, so it’s not surprising no members of his party voted to impeach. For Clinton, whatever the merits of the case against him (which I am not looking to debate yet again), it was also very clearly the culmination of a highly partisan multi-year attempt to find a way to remove him from power, so again it is not surprising to find no members of his party willing to support impeaching him.
Nixon is a far more relevant case, and the fact that Republican members of Congress were willing to tell him to resign or he would be removed from office speaks well of them. It is shameful that so few Republicans in Congress were willing to do the same regarding Trump, and the reaction of the members of their party to those who actually did so is beyond shameful.
@Moosebreath:..the reaction of the members of their party to those who actually did so is beyond shameful.
…men and women of weak character devoid of serious foundation.
h/t to Scott
If the order is a unilateral and unprecedented (and by definition unexpected) nuclear strike on China? From a lame-duck president?
Trump wanted to nuke a hurricane. It comports with his obvious ignorance (e.g., bleach kills viruses therefore ingest bleach to kill COVID-19) and inability to think critically.
I’m really not trying to pile on, Dr. Joyner. But if ordering a nuclear strike on China on November 20th , 2020 [date pulled out of a hat] is not the definition of an illegal order, what is?
Two separate thoughts related to this:
1. Re Michael’s comment on all that stands between us and nuclear annihilation, my wife and I watched Dr. Strangelove last weekend and were struck by something we’d never really understood the full context of before: the dedication of the bomber crew to follow their instructions and bomb Russia is combined with the fact that they are the only people in the whole movie who are competent at their jobs. It somehow didn’t seem as…funny…anymore.
2. Re the Founding Fathers and incapacitated (for want of a better word) presidents: wasn’t there a big deal 100 years ago about Woodrow Wilson’s post-stroke capability and whether or not his wife was too involved in delivering messages to and from his sickbed to Congress, cabinet members, etc? Were there any policies coming out of that situation relevant to the Trump presidency?
Honestly, if people really think this scenario is a clear and present danger, then the proper and serious course of action is to get Congress to limit the President’s authority over nuclear weapons, such as making launch authorization contingent on agreement by both the President and Vice President, or some other scheme.
The fact that the people who are in positions of legislative power are fine with making claims about the dangers of Trump having nuclear authority, but aren’t willing to even discuss such reforms, is strong evidence that these concerns are all talk.
With the War Powers act, I think he just has to inform congress after the fact, and get approval from congress within 30 days to continue, and presidents seldom bother with even that.
We’ve been having airstrikes against countries we aren’t at war with for most of my life.
@Gustopher: I’m not saying that is a good thing, mind you, just that it is pretty much the world we live in.
Whether or not to destroy the world is one of the most important decisions a President can make each day.
Given that Trump is spiteful and reactive, I wonder whether his lack of foreign chaos on the way out the door was because he believed he would be reinstated when the election was discovered to be fraudulent. I don’t think he would risk a nuclear war, due to the effects on his golf courses, but we didn’t even bomb Venezuela. Or Sudan.
Anybody see anything wrong with the Speaker of the House calling the CJCOS and asking for assurance the protocols preventing a POTUS who is acting strangely from initiating a war, and with a nuclear power we are talking nuclear war, are in effect?
If so, whom should a Speaker call in this situation?
If not, how should a CJCOS react?
Presidents are Presidents until they are removed from office. A presidential transition period would be an ideal time for an enemy to strike, so there is simply no doubt that a President would retain the power to order an attack right up until the successor took the oath. (Not the same thing but Bush 41 ordered US troops into Somalia after losing the 1992 election but before Bill Clinton was inaugurated–in December, in fact.)
Unless there’s an imminent attack or comparable compelling reason to act with speed, WPA explicitly requires going to Congress ahead of time. But Presidents have routinely ignored that requirement without consequence.
I don’t love it but it was understandable under the circumstances. And Milley–and all officers–answers to Congress, not just the President. I think her asking him what protocols are in place to ensure the orders are legal is fine and it was fine for him to answer. The only thing in the account that bothers me at all is his agreement that Trump is crazy. Not because I disagree but because military professionalism required demurring—unless he was saying the 25th Amendment needed to be invoked.
I really don’t understand your need to pick phantom, made-up fights with us.
FWIW, I think we need to substantially curtail the power that POTUS has in this arena, but feel free to assume you know my mind on the subject.
As the third in line for succession and the leader over a legislative body that is theoretically supposed to exercise oversight on the Executive branch, my opinion is that the Speaker can call whoever she/he wants.
I have to agree, it was inappropriate for Milley as CJCOS, to share his own concerns about the POTUS’s mental state with the Speaker. My guess is he felt a need to assure the Speaker he was taking the matter seriously, which also seems a logical reason for his purported blurting out to his Chinese counterpart that if a war was coming he would tell him himself.
And let’s not forget:
I am quoting our Great Charter.
You are conflating two issues. You don’t deal with a clear and present danger with something that will take years to accomplish. And I don’t think there is anyone here who doesn’t think that having more checks on launch capability, so I think that’s a straw man.
In the moment, Milley had to make his decision and getting a new law passed was not on the table.
@Blue Galangal: While it pains our bloggers, really Reynolds reference to Stauffenberg (or the equivalent) continously has come to my mind quite independently in the context their struggling conceptually with Trump. Of course when colonels grant themselves broad rights to second guess orders, one easily trends to coups d’etat, à la Guinée Conakry. Double edged sword, so their warnings on this front should not be dismissed just because in this instance the result was a positive. Next time may not.
Nevertheless the unbalanced concern – calling on first news what even then was in no way a Coup in any proper sense – really shows an enormous blindness.
Legal Definition of clear and present danger
: a risk or threat to safety or other public interests that is serious and imminent
As anyone who has been married knows, there’s a world of difference between “can” and “should”. Who should the Speaker call when the speaker is worried the POTUS might be nuts? How should that person react?
Call the Sec. of Defense? That person is part of the POTUS’s cabinet. Puts that person in a hell of a fix.
Call the head of SAC? A person in the direct COC can not have two masters. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs seems the Goldilocks solution. If you were in Milley’s position, what would you have done?
The Soviet Milley:
Bastard totally exceeded his authority and ignored his legal orders. Had he not, we would not be having this debate. We’d be fighting rats for dead pigeons to eat.
I know there is a different word than coup for a ruler who illegally refuses to leave office, but that trifle aside, Trump and his co-conspirators employed (among other illegal methods) violence to block the transition of power. People died and if events had changed by as little as ten minutes those killed would have included high government officials.
Sounds like everyone in the world was meeting to discuss how nuts Trump was, and what that could that mean. I find it hard to believe that after the riot there was not a basic understanding that the point was to get him out of office with nothing else happening. The subtext of everything after the riot has to be have been it’s okay, he’s finished. And as I pointed out yesterday, the NYTimes ran a report in November after the election claiming that all of his advisors had to talk him out of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. At a certain level, if talking the President out of the dumb shit that crosses his feeble mind is your 24/7 job, what’s the difference between that and cutting him out of the loop entirely?
“The Constitution is not a suicide pact”.
attrib. A. Lincoln
It’s a willful blindness in the part of people like Rubio, eagle vision on the part of those whose job is to stir people up and get those bill-paying click hits.
We now have a second post attempting to rehabilitate the first post that was a superficial take on incomplete and perhaps misleading information. I, along with others, cautioned against taking at face value the sensational reporting on Milley’s actions (news reports seeking to juice the sales of Woodward’s latest). Some called for the discipline of Milley. Some saw a crisis where civilian control over the military had been lost. Several engaged in abstract debates over the importance of following procedures. We now have been arguing the equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Congress must enforce the War Powers Act! It won’t. Congress must statutorily restrict the President’s authority to launch a nuclear strike! It won’t. Congress must convict on impeachment a President who initiates military action without prior approval! It hadn’t and won’t. A President showing this level or irrationality must be removed by application of the 25th Amendment! Naa gonna happen.
This came at the end of 4 years of the Trump administration during the course of which people were constantly asserting that Trump was a clear and present danger to the country. Of course, during that time no one did anything about it except to complain online.
We are now past the Trump administration, so the clear and present danger part is over, but the core issue still remains. Trump (or some future unfit person) may run and win again. So anyone who believes, based on the Trump experience or for any other reason, that the nuclear button should not belong to one person, well, now is as good a time as any to start trying to make that change.
As I said, I think the Speaker can call whoever she/he wants or thinks is appropriate because the Speaker is the most senior person in the Legislative branch. Furthermore, I think that whoever the Speaker calls ought to give honest and complete answers – at least as much as can be done consistent with the security level of the phone line.
If it makes you happy for me to concede that there are scenarios wherein orders should be ignored and authorities exceeded, I concede that. But, then again, I conceded that in several ways on the previous thread on this topic, but nonetheless had to fend off charges of coddling Nazis or somesuch.
Just a couple of miscellaneous observations.
Nancy Pelosi cannot issue orders to anyone in the military. She can, as Speaker, sure as hell call anyone she wants to ask questions and offer advice.
Through the Cold War the fear was a first strike. The response on both sides was the aptly named MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction. While your missiles are still in flight we’ll launch everything and take you down with us. This strategy depends on the other side knowing you have a hair trigger. While we, and in this case the Chinese, can’t rule out the other side launching a massive first strike, the odds are greatly reduced. We really ought to redo our launch command arrangements accordingly. And based on recent experience, those arrangements should take into account the possibility of a rogue prez.
People keep saying Milley should have gone to Congress. Everyone in Congress knows what Trump is. Pelosi twice handed the Senate GOPs a chance to replace him with Mike Pence and they didn’t do it. What was Milley going to tell them they didn’t already know and how the hell was he going to get them to act?
@Steven L. Taylor:
I never accused you of coddling Nazis, I made the connection to Von Stauffenberg since it was the first such example that came to mind. Lt. Col. Petrov is a more recent example. If you assume that the reporting is generally correct – I have no idea, though Woodward is pretty solid – then Milley was dealing with a desperate, unstable, rogue POTUS who was perfectly capable of starting a war.
If Trump was sufficiently crazy to try to overthrow the government of the United States, it seems likely that he would be perfectly capable of starting a wag-the-dog war. Had he started a war with Iran it would be a war crime but probably manageable. Had he started war with China there is simply no telling where it might have gone, but large scale nuclear ‘exchanges’ would be on the table.
Milley was (according to Woodward) looking at a desperate madman with the nuclear codes. He did not try to hustle Trump off to a military prison, he did not summon troops to the White House, he did the least disruptive thing he could do to keep his country safe.
Petrov is a bona-fide world saving hero. Milley’s situation isn’t remotely comparable. He was not dealing with a broken system saying the enemy had launched. He was not facing the imminent (as in within 20 minutes) end of the world. He was not actively disobeying standing orders.
At most, he may have tried to insert himself preemptively into existing standard orders order nuclear launch codes. It seems unclear to me if he is normally part of that process or not. Heck, it’s unclear to me which nuclear launch orders we are even talking about. The compressed decision loop ones issued from the football (which basically would only be usable if a million alarms were going off that an attack was already inbound and we had roughly 15 minutes to issue a counterstrike order before our ability to do so was lost), or some sort of first strike on a foreign country that included nukes–which, like any attempt to start a war, would go through the standard chain of command. My personal suspicion is that Milley was reminding people that in the latter case just because the President wants to start a (nuclear) war, they need to remember the orders should go through him (perfectly standard process).
At worse however, Milley may have been trying to insert himself into the emergency nuclear football processes where he wouldn’t normally be (this is all very unclear and personally I doubt it was the case).
Back when Bush Jr made torture an accepted part of America’s war (and when I became an Ex-Republican) a lot of fools (up to the Supreme Court) became fixated on the ticking nuclear time bomb scenario. My thoughts at the time was that if you believed we were in that scenario and decided to torture someone to try and stop it, you still have to take responsibility and face the consequences. If you were right and stopped the nuke, guess what? The consequences are “eh, technically illegal but we’re going to pin a medal not a prison sentence on you. Congratulations, hero!” But if you’re wrong you committed a crime and you can’t just walk away because you THOUGHT you were in that scenario. If nothing else, your judgement obviously isn’t trustworthy and you shouldn’t be in that position of authority in the future.
If (I repeat, IF IF IF) Milley was trying to insert himself into nuclear football handling procedures that he was not normally part of, that’s a problem because it means who actively worked against the C in C, –and was wrong that it was necessary–. Because the fact remains that to the best of any reporting we have, Trump did NOT attempt to unleash armageddon through the emergency protocols. He did not actually attempt to start a war at all-in fact he gave insane orders to try and end some in totally unrealistic timeframes. IF IF IF Milley was attempting to short-circuit the C in C’s ability to respond to an incoming nuclear strike because he feared Trump would use it to start a nuclear war instead of respond to an attack–his judgement ended up being wrong. And that’s a problem.
But as I said above, I doubt he actually did anything of the sort. When the full story comes out I expect the meeting in his office will turn out to be as innocuous as the China call did.
Regardless, our hosts have acknowledged the rapidly changing reporting, have noted the China call turned out to be nothing, and are simply expressing reservations about what might have happened (including noting specifically that they have no problem with Milley reassuring Pelosi of procedures, and only question if it was appropriate for the acting senior military officer in the country to declare the C in C insane; and even then Joyner acknowledged that if Milley was advocating for a 25th Amendment solution it would actually be fine to state that opinion!). Deciding that means Joyner and Taylor think it’s fine to end the world as long as all the forms are filled out is a ludicrous and pointlessly offensive mis-statement of what they have articulated in these two articles and the comments.
Respectfully, this is rather non-responsive to my question, though. Sure, Milley isn’t a commander, but he is part of the SOP for communicating a nuclear launch order. But that’s really neither here nor there, and I’m happy to substitute the STRATCOM commander or any other member of the formal chain of command in the hypothetical if you like. As for the rest, I agree with you that in basically any other scenario, the proper course of action for a member of the military who questions the legality of an order is to follow whatever processes are in place for objecting and then abide by the outcome of those processes or resign (if that’s an option). We’re not talking about those other scenarios, though. We’re specifically talking about a scenario in which someone in the relevant chain of command receives a nuclear launch order from the President that he/she reasonably believes to be unlawful and/or deranged. There is currently no legal process in place for challenging or countermanding that order, referring the issue to Congress or the Cabinet for debate, or whatever other safeguard we might wish existed. The commander in that situation has two choices – proceed with the launch or refuse the order and hope that doing so buys enough time for the President to reconsider or for the Cabinet to remove him. Which choice do you want that commander to make?
And to bring this hypo more fully in line with the actual scenario that seems to have played out here, what do you think the commander of STRATCOM should do if, in the final weeks of an outgoing Administration, he reasonably concludes that (i) the President has become seriously unstable, (ii) there’s a non-zero chance he’ll give an unlawful/deranged nuclear launch order, (iii) if he does, he may try to circumvent the usual chain of command and cut you out of the process to do it, and (iv) the civilian leaders that have the legal authority to preemptively remove him are unwilling to do so because they believe they can just run out the clock instead? And given that we’re talking about literal nuclear war here, do you really think it’s utterly outrageous for him to quietly lay the groundwork to delay an unlawful/insane launch order long enough for the civilian leadership to remove the President if such an order were given (which is how I interpret him reminding subordinates to confirm launch orders with him before carrying them out and discussing the situation with senior civilian leaders who share his concerns about the President’s sanity)?
@JohnSF: So which of your freedoms found in the Constitution do you deem not worth fighting for?
It was more than just a failure to anticipate their rise. The Tories and the Whigs had both existed in the UK for almost a century at the time the Constitution was drafted.
It was a naïve belief that voting would magically make them go away.
“This came at the end of 4 years of the Trump administration during the course of which people were constantly asserting that Trump was a clear and present danger to the country. Of course, during that time no one did anything about it except to complain online.”
During the first 2 of those years, Republicans held both houses of Congress, and during the second 2, Republicans held the Senate. In general, Republican members of Congress did not view Trump as a clear and present danger to the country, and would not have supported taking away his powers, including the one to launch a nuclear strike.
So we have only had about 8 months with both houses of Congress in the hands of people who viewed Trump as a danger. And if Manchin and Sinema are not going to break the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, they aren’t going to do so to add more fingers on the nuclear button.
@Michael Reynolds: I worked about 4 or 5 blocks from Boeing Plant #1 (Which IIRC housed Rocket and Missile Development at the time). I’d have been dead. (Yes, you could have had my pigeon.)
Actually, I think a number of them did realize Trump was a threat to the Republic, but felt saying so would hurt their own careers. Which is worse. More venal than stupid.
I very much appreciate the thoughtful responses from you and others on my question, and I wanted to thank you in particular because you elucidated my train of thought so much better than I did. If a nuclear strike isn’t an illegal order under such circumstances I’m not sure where the line would be drawn, even though I do understand that the President does have that power and it is not limited. In that case, though, it does seem to me that the least someone like General Milley could do is to try to make sure we don’t launch a nuclear strike without good reason. (I’ll leave aside any questions about what a good reason could be, since I do not regard nuclear weapons as any kind of option, but that’s not the point here.)
They impeached him twice and still got no forrader. The guard rails came off this particular set of institutions about 4.5 years ago and no one was (or is) going to do anything about it.
@MarkedMan: I am baffled by this response. What does the Trump coup attempt have to do with our bloggers labelling Milley a soft coup?
@Steven L. Taylor: It’s relatively obvious Reynolds is not accusing either of you of coddling Nazis. A peculiar misreading. Rather he is accusing both of you of being blind to the theoretical nature of guardrails when institutions are already being over ridden.
Indeed in reading either of you although Joyner more than you, over the Trump years and the hand-wringing, more than once the image of the good Officers of Weimar following protocal and orders in an unbalanced respect of norms (unbalanced between parties to the developments) did not protect the overall republic but rather in fact facilitated the destruction.
You both are rather blind on this front – more than you think as it shows in the unbalanced reactions (calling even on first reporting Milley’s actions a soft coup [which is not to say right either but coup was an absurd label] was absurd but also indicative of that ).
Now I have actually lived in a real coup – tanks in the street sort of thing – and in countries where the tyrrany of Colonels deciding on their own “national interest” so the concern for the viability of the chain of command and not having military units free lancing national interest decisions I understand.
As it was Abraham Lincoln’s opinion, I’d suggest you ask him, but he’s unfortunately unavailable for comment.
I believe the quote was in the context of his suspension of habeas corpus
There is also the comment by Thomas Jefferson:
As for myself, it would be rather silly of me to fight not to live with an establishment of religion, seeing as my head of state is not only the Sovereign Monarch, but also Head of the Established Church, and Defender of the Faith.
Yes, I’m a Brit.
It would also be rather foolish, though it might be wholly constitutionally proper, to obey the hypothetical orders of a deranged President, if such orders were to imperil the survival of humanity in general and Americans in particular.
In such circumstances “shoot the loony” seems the more intelligent and civic minded option.
However, all this is by the way.
It seems that, contrary to initial reporting, General Milley’s call was not the “Ohmygawd, its Armagiddeon time!” affair suggested by Woodward, or a rogue general, or even a “Deep State” conclave, but a routine, coordinated, recorded, contact between Great Power military officials.
In accordance with standing instruction from the Secretary of Defence, which had not been countermanded by the Acting Secretary or the President.
@Fog: “So which of your freedoms found in the Constitution do you deem not worth fighting for?”
The “right to bear arms” as reinterpreted by a right-wing Supreme Court to mean that any moron can walk around with a gun.
How about you?
He should go to the appropriate Congressional leadership, likely the chairmen and ranking members of HASC and SASC.
The Washington Post, CNN, and other reputable outlets took Woodward and Costa’s reporting at face value, which was a mistake. But it’s perfectly reasonable, in the context of a political blog, to proceed as if the reporting from reputable outlets—particularly that which comports with previous reporting about the same subject—as true enough for commentary. Otherwise, there is no basis for engaging in commentary of the news.
Had the context of the original reporting stood up, I would stand by the label “soft coup.” It would have represented the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs deciding for himself that Donald Trump was no longer fully President and, indeed, abrograting the powers of commander-in-chief to himself. That might well have been a preferable policy outcome to having Trump in charge. But, if we say that CJCS has this right, then he has it forevermore—even with Presidents we like.
I wouldn’t use the word coup for refusing to obey an illegal order. All I can see Milley doing, even in Woodward’s account, is preparing to do that. A coup implies the removal of all power, including the ability to dismiss Milley. I see nothing reported that indicates Milley was preparing to not accept dismissal. “Coup” is the wrong word for refusing to obey an illegal order, and per the testimony given to Congress back on Nov of 2017 on the ability of people in the chain to go to the CJCOS for advise on the issue, I see nothing Milley purportedly did which can be even be labeled as outside of SOP.
I think this example cuts in the opposite direction from what you intended.
In the case of the LTC, the validity of Obama’s birth certificate had already been adjudicated by the relevant authorities. And in the case of Trump’s fitness to hold office, his disqualification had also already been adjudicated by the House of Representatives, and he was impeached. The fact that the Senate chose not to remove him from office does not change that fact. It seems to me that anyone dealing with Trump after that point is entitled to assume that he is neither fit nor competent, and poses an insider threat to US national security.
I fully recognize that Trump was a uniquely bad and dangerous President who never should have had the proverbial keys to America’s nuclear arsenal.
Based on what? Compare Trump’s actual record in office with Biden, Obama, Bush II, Clinton, Bush I, and Reagan. What “uniquely bad and dangerous” thing did Trump do? What “uniquely bad and dangerous thing” did Trump even threaten to do?
It’s one thing to criticize or condemn Trump’s performance as President. This repetitive, mindless, reflexive, sheep-like invocation of #OrangeManBad while excusing the outrageous, incompetent, reckless, and failed actions of other Presidents just because they metaphorically knew the right knife and fork to use at dinner only guarantees the return of Trump or the arrival of someone worse.
Well, that’s probably going too far in the other direction, I think. Tom Nichols’ piece in The Atlantic today probably gets it pretty close to right in my view:
In other words, yes, he did overstep but in a way designed to minimize any encroachment on civilian control unless/until the unthinkable actually happened, and under the circumstances, in the absence of any better alternatives, this strikes me as the least worst option.
D’oh, that will teach me to try to multi-task.
What I meant to say was that in the case of Trump, there was no official finding yet at the time that Milley had to make his judgments, and that the eventual official finding would turn out to be that Trump was in fact not fit to lead. So unlike the LTC, who was flouting an existing finding of fact, Milley was not. I think that breaks the analogy.
I understand the majority of the pundits are accepting that the CJCOS is not in the loop. That is a strict interpretation of the normal COC. However, that hearing in Nov of 17 that I mentioned puts grey in that, and this is what Congress was told:
From Gen Robert Kehler’s written opening statement:
Military members are bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice
(UCMJ) to follow orders provided they are legal and come from
appropriate command authority. They are equally bound to question (and
ultimately refuse) illegal orders or those that do not come from
appropriate authority. As the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, I
shared the responsibility with the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior military and civilian
leaders to address and resolve any concerns and potential legal issues
on behalf of the men and women in the nuclear operating forces during
the decision process. It was our duty to pose the hard questions, if
any, before proceeding with our military advice. Nuclear crew members
must have complete confidence that the highest legal standards have
been enforced from target selection to an employment command by the
This explains why Pelosi called the CJCOS too.
At this level, and in these matters, the CJOS is thereby something more than a fly on the wall. He’s one of the people the triggerman at SAC has sworn to Congress he will consult.
Yes it would be concerning if Chairs of the Joint Chiefs disobeying Presidents became the norm. But nowhere near as concerning as Presidents trying to overturn the results of elections becoming the norm. The former seems extremely unlikely in the absence of the latter.
Or as has been observed times without number, constitutional governance ultimately depends on public officials voluntarily adhering to certain fundamental norms of behavior. If they don’t, then the whole system collapses into anarchy and patriots must act as they see fit to protect the nation’s interests.
I referred to the description of Milley’s actions by Woodward, which now seem to be exaggerated and out of context, as a “soft coup” in a previous post. I wouldn’t use that characterization for the actions described in this post. But the description wasn’t applied to a refusal to follow an order Milley deemed illegal but rather for his order to subordinates to ignore an order from the President until they’d checked with him.
@dazedandconfused: Keller is simply wrong. The only “responsibility” the Chairman has under law is as an advisor; he has no responsibility or authority in this matter.
@Ken_L: I agree that there are overlapping concerns here. But, ultimately, we don’t want military officers deciding who the President is.
Would you have been okay with the Chairman under Clinton making the same determination? He, too, was clearly guilty of the crimes for which he was impeached.
I wouldn’t idly dismiss the possibility that Gen Kehler, being within the nuclear COC, is a primary source for this information and the strict legalisms which govern all other military operations are modified within that special area of service.