Two days after the January 6, 2021, violent assault on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, General Mark Milley, the nation’s senior military officer and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, placed an urgent call on a top secret, back-channel line at 7:03 a.m. to his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
Milley knew from extensive reports that Li and the Chinese leadership were stunned and disoriented by the televised images of the unprecedented attack on the American legislature.
Li fired off questions to Milley. Was the American superpower unstable? Collapsing? What was going on? Was the U.S. military going to do something?
“Things may look unsteady,” Milley said, trying to calm Li, whom he had known for five years. “But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
It took an hour and a half—45 minutes of substance due to the necessary use of interpreters—to try to assure him.
When Milley hung up, he was convinced the situation was grave. Li remained unusually rattled, putting the two nations on the knife-edge of disaster.
The Chinese already were on high alert about U.S. intentions. On October 30, four days before the presidential election, sensitive intelligence showed that the Chinese believed the U.S. was plotting to secretly attack them. The Chinese thought that Trump in desperation would create a crisis, present himself as the savior, and use the gambit to win reelection.
Milley knew the Chinese assertion that the U.S. was planning a secret strike was preposterous. He had then called General Li on the same back channel to persuade the Chinese to cool down. He invoked their long-standing relationship and insisted the U.S. was not planning an attack. At the time, he believed he had been successful in placating Li, who would pass the message to Chinese president Xi Jinping.
But now, two months later, on January 8, it was evident China’s fears had only been intensified by the insurrection.
“We don’t understand the Chinese,” Milley told senior staff, “and the Chinese don’t understand us.” That was dangerous in itself. But there was more.
Milley had witnessed up close how Trump was routinely impulsive and unpredictable. Making matters even more dire, Milley was certain Trump had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, with Trump now all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies.
The scenes of a screaming Trump in the Oval Office resembled Full Metal Jacket
, the 1987 movie featuring a Marine gunnery sergeant who viciously rages at recruits with dehumanizing obscenities.
“You never know what a president’s trigger point is,” Milley told senior staff. When might events and pressures come together to cause a president to order military action?
In making the president the commander in chief of the military, a tremendous concentration of power in one person, the Constitution gave the president the authority single-handedly to employ the armed forces as he chose.
Milley believed that Trump did not want a war, but he certainly was willing to launch military strikes as he had done in Iran, Somalia, Yemen and Syria.
“I continually reminded him,” Milley said, “depending on where and what you strike, you could find yourself in a war.”
While the public’s attention was on the domestic political fallout from the Capitol riot, Milley privately recognized the U.S. had been thrust into a new period of extraordinary risk internationally. It was precisely the kind of hair-trigger environment where an accident or misinterpretation could escalate catastrophically.
It was all unfolding fast and out of public view, which in some ways resembled the tensions during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 when the U.S. and the Soviet Union almost went to war.
Milley, 62, a former Princeton hockey player, burly and ramrod straight at 5-foot-9, did not know what China would do next. But he did know, after 39 years in the Army and many bloody combat tours, that an adversary was the most dangerous when they were frightened and believed they might be attacked.
If an adversary like China ever desired, he said, “They could choose to do what’s called a ‘first-move advantage’ or a ‘Pearl Harbor,’ and conduct a strike.”
The Chinese were investing in a sweeping expansion of their military to almost superpower status.
Just 16 months earlier at a stunning
military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, President Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, had said there is “no force that can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead.” The Chinese also revealed their
latest “game changing” weapon, a hypersonic missile that could travel at five times the speed of sound.
Milley told senior staff, “There are capabilities in cyber or in space where you could do some really significant damage to a large, industrial complex society like the United States and you could do that very, very quickly through some very powerful tools that are out there. China is building all of these capabilities.”
China was also aggressively staging war games and
sending military planes daily toward the island of Taiwan, the independent offshore nation that China considered theirs and the U.S. had pledged to protect. The previous year, General Li had announced that China would “
resolutely smash” Taiwan if necessary. Taiwan alone was a powder keg.
In the South China Sea, China was on the march like never before, placing military bases on man-made islands, aggressively and, at times with breathtaking risk, challenging U.S. naval ships in important global shipping lanes.
Upcoming U.S. Navy Freedom of Navigation exercises around Taiwan and the South China Sea, and a U.S. Air Force bomber exercise, deeply worried Milley.
Such simulated attacks duplicated war conditions as much as possible and were often macho, goading endeavors, with U.S. naval ships deliberately, at high speeds, challenging China’s claims on internationally recognized territorial waters.
Infuriated, Chinese captains frequently tried to push the U.S. ships off course by closely following or darting in front of them. Due to the size of the ships, any quick turns were inherently dangerous—accidents waiting to happen that could precipitate a disastrous chain reaction.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the highest-ranking military officer in the armed forces and principal military adviser to the president. By law, the chairman’s role is one of oversight and adviser. The chairman is not in the chain of command. But in practice, the post is one of enormous power and influence held by some of the most iconic figures in military history, including Generals Omar Bradley, Maxwell Taylor and Colin Powell.
Shortly after speaking with General Li on January 8, Milley called Admiral Philip Davidson, the U.S. commander of the Indo-Pacific Command that oversees China, on a secure line.
Phil, Milley said, reminding him that as chairman he was not a commander. “I can’t tell you what to do. But you might reconsider those exercises right now. Given what’s going on in the United States, that could be considered provocative by the Chinese.”
Davidson immediately postponed the exercises.
The planned operations potentially had echoes of a similar 1980s incident when leaders in the then-Soviet Union believed the U.S. and the United Kingdom were going to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. A NATO military exercise called
ABLE ARCHER greatly magnified those Soviet suspicions. Robert Gates,
later the CIA director and defense secretary, said, “the most terrifying thing about ABLE ARCHER was that we may have been at the brink of nuclear war.”
It was that brink that worried Milley. He was living in it.
China was, by far, the most sensitive and dangerous relationship in American foreign policy. But U.S. intelligence showed the January 6 riot had not only stirred up China but caused Russia, Iran, as well as other nations to go on high alert to monitor the American military and political events in the United States.
“Half the world was friggin nervous,” Milley said. Many countries were ramping up their military operating tempo and cueing spy satellites. The Chinese already had their Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites looking intently to see if the U.S. was doing anything erratic or unusual or preparing to conduct any kind of military operation.
Milley was now on full alert every waking moment, monitoring space, cyber operations, missile firings, ship, air and ground movements, and intelligence operations. He had secure phones in nearly every room of Quarters 6, the chairman’s residence at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, that would connect him instantly to the Pentagon war room, the White House, or combatant commanders throughout the world.
Milley told his service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines—the Joint Chiefs—to watch everything “all the time.”
He called National Security Agency (NSA) director Paul Nakasone and described his call with Li. NSA monitors worldwide communications.
“Needles up,” Milley said, “keep watching, scan.” Focus on China, but make sure the Russians are not exploiting the situation to “make an opportunistic move.”
“We’re watching our lanes,” Nakasone confirmed.
Milley called CIA director Gina Haspel and gave her a readout on the call with Li.
“Aggressively watch everything, 360,” Milley said to Haspel. “Take nothing for granted right now. I just want to get through to the 20th at noon”—the inauguration of Joe Biden as president.
Whatever happened, Milley was overseeing the mobilization of America’s national security state without the knowledge of the American people or the rest of the world.
Milley had misled General Li when he claimed that the United States was “100 percent steady” and the January 6 riot was just an example of a “sloppy” democracy.
To the contrary, Milley believed January 6 was a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy, designed to overthrow the government to prevent the constitutional certification of a legitimate election won by Joe Biden.
It was indeed a coup attempt and nothing less than “treason,” he said, and Trump might still be looking for what Milley called a “
Reichstag moment.” In 1933, Adolf Hitler had cemented absolute power for himself and the Nazi Party amid street terror and the burning of the Reichstag parliamentary building.
Milley could not rule out that the January 6 assault, so unimagined and savage, could be a dress rehearsal for something larger as Trump publicly and privately clung to his belief that the election had been rigged for Biden and stolen from him.
Milley was focused on the constitutional countdown: 12 more days of the Trump presidency. He was determined to do everything to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
Unexpectedly, Milley’s executive officer came into the office and passed him a handwritten note: “Speaker Pelosi would like to speak to you ASAP. Topic: Succession. Twenty-fifth amendment.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, was second in line to succeed the president after the vice president and received detailed briefings on the command and control of U.S. nuclear weapons. The 34-year House veteran was steeped in all national security, military and intelligence matters.
Milley picked up the Pelosi call on his personal cell phone, an unclassified line, and put it on speakerphone so one of his advisers could also listen.
What follows is a transcript of the call obtained by the authors.
“What precautions are available,” Pelosi asked, “to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?
“This situation of this unhinged president could not be more dangerous. We must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.”
Pelosi said she was calling Milley as the senior military officer because Christopher Miller, recently installed by Trump as acting secretary of defense, had not been confirmed by the Senate.
“I can tell you that we have a lot of checks in the system,” Milley said. “And I can guarantee you, you can take it to the bank, that there’ll be, that the nuclear triggers are secure and we’re not going to do—we’re not going to allow anything crazy, illegal, immoral or unethical to happen.”
“And how are you going to do that? Going to take the football away from him or whatever it is?” she asked.
She well knew that the football is the briefcase carried by a senior military aide to the president containing the sealed authentication launch codes for using nuclear weapons and a so-called black book that lists attack and target options.
“Well,” Milley said, “we have procedures. There are launch codes and procedures that are required to do that. And I can assure you, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I can assure you that
will not happen.”
“So if you had some concern that it could, what would be the step you would take?”
“If I thought even for a nanosecond that—I have no direct authority,” he said, “but I have a lot of ability to prevent bad things from happening in my own little…”
Pelosi interrupted, “The American people need some reassurance on this, General. What are you prepared to say publicly about this?”
“I don’t, candidly, Madam Speaker. Publicly, I don’t think I should say anything right now. I think that anything that I would say as an individual, I think would be misconstrued in ten different ways.”
“Well, let’s just talk about it objectively and not about any particular president,” Pelosi said. “With all the power that is invested into the president to have that power—to use the word twice—what are the precautions here?”
“The precautions are procedures that we have in place,” he said, “which require authentication, certification, and any instructions have to come from a competent authority and they have to be legal. And there has to be a logical rationale for any kind of use of nuclear weapon. Not just nuclear weapons, use of force.
“So I can assure you that we have rock solid systems in place. That there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell this president, or any president can launch nuclear weapons illegally, immorally, unethically without proper certification from…”
“And you said not only nuclear, but also use of force?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Milley said. “A lot of people are concerned about, and rightly so, concerned about a potential incident in say Iran. I’m watching that as close as a hawk. Every single hour watching things overseas. The same thing domestically, with things like martial law stuff, the Insurrection Act.
“This is one of those moments, Madam Speaker, where you’re going to have to trust me on this. I guarantee it. I’m giving you my word. I can’t say any of this publicly because I really don’t have the authorities and it would be misconstrued in 50 different directions, but I can assure you that the United States military is steady as a rock and we’re not going to do anything illegal, immoral or unethical with the use of force. We will not do it.”
Pelosi interjected. “But he just did something illegal, immoral and unethical and nobody stopped him. Nobody. Nobody at the White House. This escalated in the way it did because of the intent of the president. The president incited it and nobody in the White House did anything about it. Nobody in the White House did anything to stop him.”
“I’m not going to disagree with you,” Milley replied.
“So you’re saying you’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen?” the speaker asked. “It already did happen. An assault on our democracy happened and nobody said, you can’t do that. Nobody.”
“Well, Madam Speaker, the launching of nuclear weapons and the incitement of a riot…”
“I know they’re different. Thank you very much. What I’m saying to you is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do? And is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”
She continued, “Is there any reason to think that somebody, some voice of reason, could have weighed in with him? So for this, we are very, very affected by this. This is not an accident. This is not something that you go, well, now that’s done, let’s go from there. Let’s move on. It ain’t that. This is deep what he did. He traumatized the staff. He assaulted the Capitol and the rest of that. And he’s not going to get away with it. He’s not going to be empowered to do more.”
Pelosi brought up President Richard Nixon, who had been forced to resign in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal.
“Nixon did far less and the Republicans said to him, ‘You have to go.’ Not even in the same league of things. ‘You have to go.’ The Republicans are all enablers of this behavior and I just wonder does anybody have any sanity at the White House? Say don’t go there.
“They put up this fraudulent—this uh—‘he says he doesn’t have anything to do with it’ video yesterday because they know they’re in trouble. This is bad, but who knows what he might do. He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time. So don’t say you don’t know what his state of mind is. He’s crazy and what he did yesterday is further evidence of his craziness. But anyway, I appreciate what you said.”
“Madam Speaker,” Milley said. “I agree with you on everything.”
“What can I tell my colleagues who are demanding answers about what is happening to deter him from engaging in launching any kind of initiation of hostilities in any way, in any way, and including taking his hand off that power?
“And the only way to do that is to get rid of him because there’s nobody around with any courage to stop him from storming the Capitol and inflaming, inciting an insurrection. And there he is, the president of the United States in there. And you’ve answered my question. Thank you, General. Thank you.”
Pelosi paused and asked, “Is that fool at the Department of Defense, the acting Secretary, does he have any power in this regard? Is it worth any second even to call him?”
“I agree 100 percent with everything you’ve said,” Milley replied. “The one thing I can guarantee is that as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I want you to know that—I want you to know this in your heart of hearts, I can guarantee you 110 percent that the military, use of military power, whether it’s nuclear or a strike in a foreign country of any kind, we’re not going to do anything illegal or crazy. We’re not going to do…”
“Well,” Pelosi asked, “what do you mean, illegal or crazy? Illegal by whose judgments of illegal? He already did and nobody did anything about it.”
“So I’m talking about the use of the U.S. military,” Milley said. “I’m talking about us striking out, lashing out militarily. U.S. military power domestically and/or internationally.”
“I’m not going to say that I’m assured by that,” she said, “
but I’m going to say that I asked you about it—just so you know. Because…”
“I can give you my word,” Milley said. “The best I can do is give you my word and I’m going to prevent anything like that in the United States military.”
“Well,” she said, “I hope you can prevail in the insane snake pit of the Oval Office and the crazy family as well. You’d think there’d been an intervention by now. The Republicans have blood on their hands and everybody who enables him to do what he does has blood on their hands and the traumatic effect for our country.
“And our young people who are idealistic and who work here, I will tell you the people on both sides of the aisle have been traumatized to the nth degree because this man is a nut and everybody knows it and nobody will act upon it. So we’ll just keep pushing for the 25th Amendment and for some Republican leadership to replace the president.
“But it is a sad state of affairs for our country that we’ve been taken over by a dictator who used force against another branch of government. And he’s still sitting there. He should have been arrested. He should have been arrested on the spot. He had a coup d’état against us so he can stay in office. There should be some way to remove him. But anyway, it’s no use wasting your time on this. I appreciate that. Thank you, General. Thank you.”
“Madam Speaker, you have to take my word for it. I know the system and we’re okay. The president alone can order the use of nuclear weapons. But he doesn’t make the decision alone. One person can order it, several people have to launch it.
“Thank you, Madam Speaker.”
Pelosi had a case, Milley realized. Her profound worries were well founded. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the procedures, techniques, even the means and equipment, of controlling the possible use of the nukes had been analyzed, debated, and, at times, changed.
Milley often said that the use of nuclear weapons had to be “legal” and the military did have rigorous procedures.
But no system was foolproof, no matter how finely tuned and practiced. Control of nuclear weapons involved human beings and he knew that human beings, including himself, made mistakes. As a practical matter, if a president was determined to use them, it is unlikely a team of lawyers or military officers would be able to stop him.
Former defense secretary William J. Perry
had been saying for years that the president has sole control of the use of U.S. nuclear weapons.
In an article published in early 2021, Perry said, “Once in office, a president gains the absolute authority to start a nuclear war. Within minutes, Trump can unleash hundreds of atomic bombs, or just one. He does not need a second opinion.”
Now, with Pelosi’s challenge and the clear alarm from China, Milley wanted to find a way to inject, if not require, that second opinion.
He developed a phrase, what he called “the absolute darkest moment of theoretical possibility.”
It was both nuanced and real. There was a dark and theoretical possibility that President Trump could go rogue and order military action or the use of nuclear weapons, without going through the required procedures.
Milley felt no absolute certainty that the military could control or trust Trump. Milley believed it was his job as the senior military officer to think the unthinkable, take any and all necessary precautions.
He considered himself a closet historian and had thousands of books in his personal library.
“Pulling a Schlesinger” was what he needed to do to contain Trump and maintain the tightest possible control of the lines of military communication and command authority.
The move was a reference to an edict by former secretary of defense James Schlesinger to military leaders in August 1974 not to follow orders that came directly from President Nixon, who was facing impeachment, or the White House without first checking with Schlesinger and his JCS chairman, General George Brown.
Two weeks after Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, The New York Times
broke the story headlined: “Pentagon Kept Tight Rein in Last Days of Nixon Rule.”
Schlesinger and General Brown feared Nixon might go around the chain of command and independently contact officers or a military unit to order a strike, putting the country and the world in jeopardy. They had been unwilling to take the risk.
Milley saw alarming parallels between Nixon and Trump. In 1974,
Nixon had grown increasingly irrational and isolated, drinking heavily, and, in despair, pounding the carpet in prayer with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Milley decided to act. He immediately summoned senior officers from the National Military Command Center (NMCC). This is the war room in the Pentagon, used for communicating emergency action orders from the National Command Authority—the president or his successor—for military action or use of nuclear weapons.
The NMCC is part of the chairman’s Joint Staff and is manned 24/7 with rotating teams on five shifts headed by a one-star general or admiral.
Soon a one-star officer and several colonels who were designated senior NMCC operations officers filed into Milley’s office. Most had never been in the chairman’s office. They seemed nervous and bewildered to be there.
Without providing a reason, Milley said he wanted to go over the procedures and process for launching nuclear weapons. Only the president could give the order, he said.
But then he made clear that he
, the chairman of the JCS, must be directly involved. Under current procedure, there was supposed to be a voice conference call on a secure network that would include the secretary of defense, the JCS chairman and lawyers.
“If you get calls,” Milley said, “no matter who they’re from, there’s a process here, there’s a procedure. No matter what you’re told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure. You’ve got to make sure that the right people are on the net.”
If there was any doubt what he was emphasizing, he added, “You just make sure that I’m on this net.
“Don’t forget. Just don’t forget.” He said that his statements applied to any order for military action, not just the use of nuclear weapons. He had to be in the loop.
By way of summary he said, “The strict procedures are explicitly designed to avoid inadvertent mistakes or accidents or nefarious, unintentional, illegal, immoral, unethical launching of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
It was his “Schlesinger,” but he did not call it that to the assembled NMCC officers.
Make sure everyone on duty and in each shift gets this review, he said.
“They’re in place 24/7, every day, all day long.” The watch teams practiced the procedure multiple times a day.
Any doubt, any irregularity, first, call me directly and immediately. Do not act until you do.
He pointed to himself.
Then he went around the room, asking each officer for confirmation they understood, looking each in the eye.
“Got it?” Milley asked.
“Got it?” he asked another.
Milley considered it an oath.
Suddenly, about 12:03 p.m., Milley noticed the news crawl on the television in his office tuned to CNN with the sound off:
PELOSI SAYS SHE SPOKE TO JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN ON PREVENTING TRUMP FROM “INITIATING MILITARY HOSTILITIES” OR “ORDERING A NUCLEAR STRIKE.”
“What the fuck?” an officer asked.
As Milley listened to the CNN story, he quickly saw Pelosi had not revealed what he had said to her—and only shared part of what she had said to him. She did not mention her reference to Nixon. But what she had said publicly was correct as far as it went.
In these final days, Milley wondered, could Trump prompt the undermining of American democracy and the world order, carefully built in the years since World War II?
Milley was not going to allow an unstable commander in chief, who he believed had engaged in a treasonous violation of his oath, to use the military improperly.
The Schlesinger revival, 47 years after Nixon, had been necessary, a wise check, carefully calibrated, Milley was sure.
Was he subverting the president? Some might contend Milley had overstepped his authority and taken extraordinary power for himself.
But his actions, he believed, were a good faith precaution to ensure there was no historic rupture in the international order, no accidental war with China or others, and no use of nuclear weapons.