The top US general has told American lawmakers that he was not trying to undermine Donald Trump by placing calls to his Chinese counterpart after US intelligence signalled China feared the former president could order a military attack.
Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
During the hearing, he defended himself over calls he made to reassure his Chinese counterpart on the issue.
“I know I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it is my direct responsibility -- and it was my direct responsibility by the Secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese. My task at that time was to de-escalate," he said.
"My message, again, was consistent: stay calm, steady, and de-escalate,” Milley said during the Congressional hearing.
Milley said that he made two specific calls to his Chinese counterpart General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army on October 30, 2020 and January 8, 2021 on the issues.
“We are not going to attack you. At Secretary of Defence (Mark) Esper's direction, I made a call to General Li on October 30. Eight people sat in that call with me, and I read out the call within 30 minutes of the call ending,” he said.
“On 31 December, the Chinese requested another call with me. The deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asia Pacific policy helped coordinate my call, which was then scheduled for January 8, and he made a preliminary call on January 6,” he said, adding that 11 people attended that call with him, and readouts of this call were distributed to the interagency that same day.
Shortly after his call ended with General Li, Milley said he personally informed both the then Secretary of State (Mike) Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff about the call among other topics.
Republicans blasted Milley's calls with China and his interviews for books critical of Trump's presidency.
“Later that same day, on January 8, Speaker of the House (Nancy) Pelosi called me to inquire about the president's ability to launch nuclear weapons. I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process. She was concerned and made various personal references characterising the president,” Milley said.
“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. There are processes, protocols, and procedures in place, and I repeatedly assured her that there is no chance of an illegal, unauthorised, or accidental launch,” he said.
“By presidential directive and secretary of defence directives, the chairman is part of the process to ensure the president is fully informed when determining the use of the world's deadliest weapons. By law, I am not in the chain of command, and I know that,” he noted.
However, by presidential directive and Department of Defence (DOD) instruction, he is in the chain of communication to fulfil his legal statutory role as the president's primary military advisor.
Miley had come under criticism including calls to resign after news of the calls to his Chinese counterpart became public in mid-September.