WASHINGTON — The senior-most U.S. military officer did not bypass his civilian leaders when he called his Chinese counterpart in October and January, his office said on Wednesday after the release of excerpts from a new book that alleges that the conversations centered on concerns about President Donald J. Trump.
“Peril,” by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, says that Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretly called China twice to offer reassurances that Mr. Trump had no plans to start a war with the country as part of an effort to remain in power.
General Milley’s spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, said in a statement that “all calls from the chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency,” a reference to the government’s national security bureaucracy.
“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,” the statement said.
The general’s “calls with the Chinese and others in October and January,” Colonel Butler said, “were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.”
The colonel did not address the specifics of the conversations, which, according to the book, also included assurances that the United States was not collapsing.
“Things may look unsteady,” he told Gen. Li Zuocheng of China on Jan. 8, two days after Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol to try to stop the certification of his election loss, in the second of two calls. “But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Despite those assurances, the book asserts that General Milley was so concerned about Mr. Trump that he convened a meeting with top commanders later that day to remind them of the procedures for launching a nuclear weapon and that he needed to be involved in such decisions.
The Pentagon press secretary, John F. Kirby, said on Wednesday that there was nothing wrong with the request, saying it was “completely appropriate for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the senior military adviser to the president, to want to see the protocols reviewed.” He added that “I see nothing in what I’ve read that would cause any concern.”
President Biden said on Wednesday that he had “great confidence in General Milley.”
“The president has complete confidence in his leadership, his patriotism and his fidelity to our Constitution,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said during a briefing on Wednesday.
But some Republicans took to Twitter to express their anger.
“I will be declining this invite to dine with Attempted Coup Leader & Renowned Critical Race Theorist Mark Milley,” Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida wrote, posting an image of an invitation from the National Defense University to a reception next month where the general is the featured speaker. The general is unlikely to have personally extended the invite; he took Mr. Gaetz to task during a congressional hearing in June, after the lawmaker criticized military institutions for teaching about systemic racism.
Instead of demurring, as military leaders often do during congressional hearings, General Milley retorted that he had read Mao, Marx and Lenin and that “doesn’t make me a communist.”
During the tumultuous last months of his presidency, Mr. Trump made clear in a series of meetings that he was not averse to using the military to help him remain in power, officials said. But even then, the Pentagon sought to avoid the impression that military leaders would go around their civilian counterparts.
Similar to other news reports and books released since Mr. Trump left office, “Peril” describes how his presidency essentially collapsed in its final months, particularly after his election loss and the start of his campaign to deny its results. Top aides — including General Milley, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Attorney General William P. Barr — became convinced that they needed to take drastic measures to stop Mr. Trump from trampling on democracy or setting off an international conflict. General Milley thought that the president had declined mentally after the election, according to the book.
A senior Pentagon official said that Mr. Esper, in the weeks before he was unceremoniously fired by Mr. Trump, also made calls of reassurance to foreign counterparts worried about the president.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting from Washington.