The White House on Wednesday defended the top U.S. military commander, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, against calls for his resignation following disclosures in a new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
According to the book, titled "Peril," Milley told senior military officials that any attack orders coming from former President Donald Trump in the waning days of his presidency must be cleared with him. The book also disclosed that Milley twice called China to assure Beijing that no U.S. attack was imminent.
Under U.S. law, the president is the commander in chief and there is a tradition of civilian control of military leaders.
But Milley, believing that Trump had suffered a mental decline after losing his reelection bid last November, summoned his senior military leaders in early January to make sure they conferred with him before carrying out any overseas attack orders from Trump, according to the book. Milley has not challenged the assertions.
After the outreach to Beijing was disclosed Tuesday, senior officials said Milley had coordinated the calls with the knowledge of the office of the secretary of defense, the Pentagon's civilian leadership.
Trump issued no such attack orders in January as he prepared to leave Washington and turn the presidency over to Democrat Joe Biden, though he persists to this day in unfounded claims that he was cheated out another four-year term by fraudulent vote counts.
Milley has continued to lead the U.S. military during Biden's first eight months in office. But some Republican lawmakers have called for his resignation over the incidents described in the book, which is set for release next week.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected any contention that Milley had violated the principle of civilian control of the military. She said Biden has "complete confidence in his leadership, his patriotism and his fidelity to the Constitution."
The incidents occurred at a time when the former president "fomented unrest leading to insurrection and an attack on our nation's Capitol," she said. Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the building on January 6 to try to prevent lawmakers from certifying Biden's victory.
Psaki called the rioting at the Capitol "one of the darkest days in our nation's history."
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a frequent Biden critic, called for Milley's resignation, saying that Milley "worked to actively undermine the sitting commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces" and that his actions amounted to treason.
"Gen. Milley has attempted to rationalize his reckless behavior by arguing that what he perceived as the military's judgment was more stable than its civilian commander," Rubio wrote to Biden.
"It is a dangerous precedent that could be asserted at any point in the future by Gen. Milley or others," Rubio said. "It threatens to tear apart our nation's longstanding principle of civilian control of the military."
Another Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, called the book's revelations "deeply concerning."
"Our Constitution embeds civilian control of the military, and if the chairman of the joint chiefs was actively undermining the commander in chief and pledging to our enemies to defy his own commander, that is completely inconsistent with his responsibilities," Cruz said.
But Milley's spokesman, Colonel David Butler, said the chief of staff's reported actions were within normal bounds, noting he regularly consults with defense chiefs across the world, including those in China and Russia.
"General Milley continues to act and advise within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military and his oath to the Constitution," Butler said in a press release.