The Joint Chiefs chairman said he was not sidelining President Donald Trump or trying to influence nuclear launch protocols with a pair of calls to China about potential conflict at the end of the last administration.
"At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority or insert myself into the chain of command," Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday after reports of the calls in the book "Peril" by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa caused a storm of controversy.
Milley made two calls to Chinese counterparts, one at the end of October shortly before the U.S. presidential election disputed by Trump and again two days after the January riot at the U.S. Capitol that threatened the electoral vote certification by Congress.
The book describes Milley making the calls to a Chinese general during that chaotic period due to concerns that Trump could inadvertently cause a war with China, and it claims that the general at one point told the Chinese that he would notify them ahead of time if the U.S. was going to strike.
Milley had previously denied the calls were inappropriate, but his testimony to the Senate committee, ostensibly on Afghanistan, provided his first high-profile public comments.
"I know, I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese," Milley told the committee. "My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent -- stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you."
He said the calls were coordinated with former Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his successor, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, as well as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows, despite the description in Woodward and Costa's book that his communications with his Chinese counterpart were secret.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Milley on the same day, Jan. 8, as he made his second call to the Chinese. She described being concerned about Trump's mental health and his ability to launch nuclear weapons in the last days before President Joe Biden took office.
"She was concerned and made various personal references characterizing the president," Milley testified. "I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority and he doesn't launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.