The top U.S. military officer told Congress on Tuesday that two calls to his Chinese counterpart in the last months of the Trump administration were made openly and in response to legitimate concerns.
He said key officials in the administration of former President Donald Trump knew about the calls, in which he assured China that Trump had no intention of launching an attack against it in the waning weeks of his White House tenure.
Some Republican lawmakers have called on President Joe Biden to fire Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for what they characterized as a violation of the long-standing U.S. tradition of civilian control of the military.
But Milley defended the calls, one on October 30 and one on January 8, saying he was responding to "concerning intelligence" that China was worried about a U.S. attack.
"I know, I am certain, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese and it was my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent," Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to his calls to Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People's Liberation Army.
"My task at that time was to de-escalate,” he said. “My message again was consistent: Stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you."
The calls were first disclosed in the recently released book "Peril" by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, an account of the final weeks of Trump’s presidency.
After the disclosure, Trump called the Joint Chiefs chairman "a complete nutjob" and said Milley "never told me about calls being made to China."
But Milley said the first call was directed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, while 11 people were present for the second call and that he later informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows of it.
Milley said the second call, which occurred two days after hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent lawmakers from certifying that Biden had defeated Trump in last November's election, came at the request of the Chinese and was coordinated with the office of then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller.
Milley said he was committed to civilian control of the U.S. military.
"Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle essential to the health of this republic," Milley testified, adding, "And I'm committed to ensuring that the military stays clear of domestic politics."