In the afternoon hours on Tuesday, following reports that then-President Donald Trump’s top military adviser had formulated secret plans in case the commander in chief went “rogue” after the Jan. 6 riot, the ex-president picked up the phone and rang up several close associates and TV-prone political allies. According to two people familiar with the matter, the twice-impeached former president was sounding testy and had a simple request:
He wanted his prominent supporters to go on television and in public this week to declare that Gen. Mark Milley should be “arrested” for “treason.”
They followed his orders as various MAGA-faithful pundits and Trumpy candidates—including Ohio U.S Senate candidate Josh Mandel, Trump-aligned TPUSA frontman Charlie Kirk, and several former Trump officials—dutifully echoed the “treason” charge on social media.
And by Tuesday evening, the twice-impeached former U.S. president was on a Newsmax show co-hosted by his former White House using the T-word.
“I’ve had so many calls today saying that’s treason,” Trump told Newsmax hosts Sean Spicer and Lyndsay Keith. Later in the evening, the former president released a written statement through his office, calling him “‘Dumbass’ General Mark Milley,” adding that if the reporting is accurate, “I assume he would be tried for TREASON in that he would have been dealing with his Chinese counterpart behind the President’s back and telling China that he would be giving them notification ‘of an attack.’”
“If this is true, General Milley would be a traitor to this country and should be tried for treason immediately. If true, he should be fired and tried for treason immediately,” Fox News star and informal Trump adviser Sean Hannity exclaimed later on Tuesday night, alongside an on-air graphic that blared “Benedict Milley.”
The “treason” talk was sparked by revelations from a forthcoming book, Peril, by veteran Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, which depicts Milley going behind the president’s back to prepare for a potentially “rogue” nuclear weapons launch order from Trump and reassure Chinese military officials that the U.S. government did not intend to strike China amidst the chaos of the 2020 election.
The day after the deadly Capitol riot that Trump instigated, The Daily Beast reported that “high-ranking national-security officials have spent the last 24 hours scrambling to figure out how to keep their commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, from inciting further violence at home, spilling national secrets, or sparking last-minute confrontations with international foes.”
Excerpts of Woodward and Costa’s work published by the Post and CNN say that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley—who continues on in that role under President Joe Biden—was so unnerved by Trump’s behavior in the aftermath of the insurrection and election that he believed the president was in “serious mental decline” and that the president could “go rogue.” At the time, such concerns were shared throughout the administration and one senior Trump official told The Daily Beast that the insurrection had “changed the calculus” and that “People are concerned about [the president’s] state of mind.”
Milley, Woodward and Costa wrote, called a number of senior military officers into a secret Pentagon meeting to review nuclear launch procedures and told them to ignore orders for a nuclear launch unless Milley was involved, according to CNN. “No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I'm part of that procedure.”
It’s unclear what Milley was reportedly referring to as there is no statutory requirement for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be involved in or consulted for the launch of a nuclear weapon.
In the United States, the president has “sole authority” to launch nuclear weapons, meaning that no one either in the armed forces or the cabinet has to concur or agree with his decision to launch nuclear weapons insofar as the order is legal under the laws of war.
What constitutes an illegal nuclear launch order, however, remains murky given that the mass destructive power of nuclear weapons is inherently in tension with the criteria for lawful targeting decisions like military necessity, distinction, proportionality, and unnecessary suffering.
Questions about nuclear launch authority under Trump’s erratic personality have followed senior military officials throughout the former president’s tenure in office. In 2017, Gen. John Hyten, the former head of Strategic Command, which has responsibility for nuclear forces, brushed off concerns. In the event of a requested nuclear strike, Hyten said he would “provide advice to the president” and if told to do something illegal, “I'm going to say, ‘Mr. President, that's illegal,’” and instead work with the commander in chief to find a suitable legal alternative.
In the wake of the insurrection, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also called Milley to urge that the chairman take unspecified “available precautions” to ensure that an “unhinged” President Trump could not launch a nuclear strike.
Woodward and Costa report that Milley also made two phone calls to China’s top military officer, Gen. Li Zuocheng, before and after the election to reassure the People’s Liberation Army chief that the U.S. was not planning to strike China and that the U.S. government was stable in the wake of the Capitol insurrection.
In an appearance on Newsmax TV on Tuesday, Trump fumed at the reports of Milley’s alleged call with China’s top general.
“So first of all, if it is actually true—which is hard to believe that he would have called China and done these things and was willing to advise them in advance of an attack—that’s treason,” Trump said.
The idea was “totally ridiculous,” according to Trump. “For him to say that I would even think about attacking China, I think [Milley is] trying to just get out of his incompetent withdrawal out of Afghanistan, the dumbest thing that anybody has seen,” the ex-commander in chief continued.
Pentagon officials on Tuesday told Fox News National Security Correspondent Jennifer Griffin that Milley had not “insert[ed] himself” into the chain of command, but simply “reviewed” existing protocol.
As with many of his top administration officials, Trump’s relationship with his former top general has deteriorated with time. Milley, who flouted the norms of civil-military relations by appearing in a photo op alongside the president after federal law enforcement beat and tear gassed Black Lives Matter protests in Lafayette Square Park, subsequently apologized for the “mistake” and said it had “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Trump, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender wrote in a different recent book, took umbrage at the apology and called Milley “weak” for making it. And at an August rally in Alabama, the former president publicly blasted Milley, saying “This guy doesn't have what it takes.”