A deputy to then-President Donald Trump’s acting secretary of defense held a call with his Chinese counterpart two days before the now-controversial call by Gen. Mark Milley, undercutting criticism that the Joint Chiefs chairman was out of line.
According to two sources familiar with the matter, in a previously scheduled call on January 6, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for China Chad Sbragia spoke to his Chinese counterpart, in what one former US official described as a routine exchange leading into the impending transition between two presidential administrations.
In the days since the revelation of Milley’s January 8 call, as well as one he had in October, Sbragia’s former boss, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, has been among the fiercest critics of Milley.
In a statement on Wednesday, Miller accused Milley of a “disgraceful and unprecedented act of insubordination” that violated “the inviolable principle of civilian control of the military,” and has insisted that he “did not and would not ever authorize” such engagements.
Yet in an interview with CNN on Friday, Miller acknowledged he likely would not have been informed of such routine engagements that either his office or Milley would have had with China. Miller also clarified that his criticism of Milley wasn’t over the call he had in January, but the one he had in October 2020, under then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
“I don’t care about the coordination calls. It’s totally appropriate for him to call his counterparts,” Miller told CNN in a text message on Friday.
Milley’s calls are detailed in “Peril,” a forthcoming book by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
One former US official briefed on Milley’s call said that it was “implausible that [Milley’s call] would have been done without” Sbragia’s knowledge. Moreover, this person said, such a routine call likely wouldn’t have triggered notification of the defense secretary — a fact Miller confirmed to CNN on Friday.
“The verbal brief I got back seemed pretty innocuous,” the former official added, but said, “Milley wasn’t always the best at doing great coordination.”
As CNN reported on Wednesday, there were 15 people on both videoconference calls Milley held with his Chinese counterpart, one on October 30 and another on January 8 — including a representative from the State Department, according to a current defense official. Still, none of them were from the secretary of defense’s office, the former US official said.
Multiple former US officials said there almost certainly was not a transcript of the call — just notes taken by staffers. Those notes, along with an official readout, were shared with the intelligence community and the interagency, according to the current defense official.
Milley on Friday defended the calls he placed to his Chinese counterpart during Donald Trump’s final months in office as “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his job as the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“These are routine calls in order to discuss issues of the day, to reassure both allies and adversaries in this case, in order to ensure strategic stability,” Milley told reporters traveling with him on a military jet, the newspaper reported.
A December meeting
A separate former senior defense official told CNN that during an early December meeting between Milley, Miller and other senior defense officials, Milley also told Miller that he had an open dialogue with his Chinese counterpart that had been ongoing under former defense secretary Mark Esper.
In the lead-up to Milley’s January call, the first former US official said, “I discussed with his staff that this is a good opportunity to remind the Chinese that any transition period should not be viewed as an opportunity for Chinese adventurism. During this period, it was a good and responsible thing to do.”
Miller had previously acknowledged to CNN that he likely received some “perfunctory” notification of the call, but raised questions about the level of detail he received before or after.
At the time, Miller had been in office for only a matter of months. Former President Donald Trump dismissed Defense Secretary Mark Esper following the election and installed Miller and a handful of other officials on an acting basis in the final 60 days of the administration.
Now, even amongst Milley’s critics, there seems to be little controversy over the content of the January exchange, as described by both Woodward and Costa as well as other sources.
The October call
Along with his January 8 call, “Peril” documents another backchannel call Milley placed to China’s top general, Li Zuocheng, in October. Milley initiated that call due to intelligence suggesting China were growing increasingly concerned that the US was going to attack them, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter, Milley sought to calm Li by reassuring him that the US was not considering a strike.
The call was a “sophisticated and appropriate action taken to reduce risk with Chinese based on clear evidence and facts that Chinese had made a gross conceptual miscalculation,” the former US official said — not an offer by Milley to “tip off” the Chinese of an impending attack, as some critics have read the account of the call as laid out in “Peril.”
“General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years,” Milley said in the October 30 call, according to Woodward and Costa. “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise. It’s not going to be a bolt out of the blue.”
“If there was a war or some kind of kinetic action between the United States and China, there’s going to be a buildup, just like there has been always in history,” Milley told Li according to the book.
“Peril” also details a secret meeting Milley convened in his office at the Pentagon two days after the January 6 attack at the Capitol, in which Milley went over the procedure for launching nuclear weapons, telling top military officers they needed to consult him before proceeding with any order.
“No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure,” Milley said, according to the book.
That account is of far more concern to some former officials who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity and outside analysts, who see it as the chairman of the joint chiefs — whose role by statute is advisory, not a command authority — inserting himself inappropriately into the chain of command.
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