Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, serves as the presiding official during a retirement ceremony for Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel in Tampa, Fla., March 28, 2019. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

General Milley and Trump.

Plus, a reader asks about the great reset.
Isaac Saul Sep 16, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The dramatic details of Trump’s last days in office. Plus, an anonymous reader asks about the great reset.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, serves as the presiding official during a retirement ceremony for Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel in Tampa, Fla., March 28, 2019. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Hello.

First, wishing an easy fast to everyone participating in today’s Yom Kippur holiday. In tomorrow’s subscribers-only Friday edition, I’ll be writing about what we can and can’t learn from Gavin Newsom winning the recall election in California — and what it does and doesn’t mean for Democrats nationally. I’ll also be revisiting what I wrote a month ago about the recall election and examining how it has held up since. Reminder: These editions are for members only, so you have to sign up to receive it!

Reader feedback.

A reader named Julie replied to yesterday’s newsletter, specifically addressing my line that few people will weep for Americans who are taxed more on their inheritances. She said:

“The problem with this statement is that it's not just the wealthy that would be impacted by a major change to this particular piece of tax law…  First, people (rich and poor) can and do own property for very long periods of time. As we've seen recently, property values can rise dramatically in short periods of time and much more dramatically over long periods of time. I currently live in Montana, and there are TONS of people living in trailer houses on small, medium, and large parcels of land that weren't worth $25,000 50 years ago but are now worth millions.  

“If the federal government changes the laws around inheritance you won't just be impacting the rich. You'll also be impacting those who are cash poor but rich in land or property. For many, they simply won't be able to afford the taxes on it and will have to sell property that they otherwise would have kept, kept in the family.  And when they do sell, they get measurably less. Because selling will be what happens, you'll see fewer and fewer large tracts of land available as they are all carved up into tiny parcels. Inheriting property is one of the few ways for many middle and lower class families to claw their way out of poverty and for one generation to provide for the next.”

Quick hits.

  1. Simone Biles and a group of U.S. gymnasts testified before the Senate yesterday about how the Olympic committee and the FBI failed them and allowed years of sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar. (The testimony)
  2. Covid-19 cases are beginning to fall nationally, but deaths are continuing to rise. (The data)
  3. Yesterday, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched the first crew of amateurs into orbit without a professional astronaut on board. (The launch)
  4. Pennsylvania Republicans have approved subpoenas for the personal data of millions of voters, advancing a probe of the 2020 election in a key battleground state. (The probe)
  5. U.S retail sales rebounded in August, a sign of economic resilience despite the spread of the Delta variant. (The numbers)

Today’s topic.

General Mark Milley. In a forthcoming book, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa allege that Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking and most senior military officer in the armed forces, was single-handedly taking action to prevent President Donald Trump from ordering a dangerous military strike or launching a nuclear strike. Details of the book were initially reported by The Washington Post (where Costa works) and CNN (which saw an excerpt of the book).

In the book, titled Peril, Milley was apparently so shaken by the attacks on the U.S. Capitol that he “was certain Trump had gone into a serious mental decline” shortly after the election. He responded to this fear by calling a secret meeting in his Pentagon office and instructing top senior military officers to ensure that he was involved in and notified of any orders for a military strike or to launch a nuclear weapon.

At one point, before the election and after receiving intelligence that China believed the U.S. was about to attack, Milley even contacted his Chinese counterpart to assure him that the U.S. was not considering a strike. There were 15 people on the conference call, including a representative from the State Department, and readouts of the call were turned over to the intelligence community, according to Peril.

“General Li, you and I have known each other now for five years,” Milley said, according to the book. “If we're going to attack, I'm going to call you ahead of time. It's not going to be a surprise. It's not going to be a bolt out of the blue.”

Milley, who is now serving in the same role under President Biden, immediately came under criticism after excerpts of the book were released. It wasn’t just Trump allies, either: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified against Trump in his impeachment trial, said Milley should step down if the book’s details are accurate.

In their writing, Woodward and Costa also claim Trump turned on several close allies, including Vice President Mike Pence, when they refused to help him in his effort to remain in office despite losing the November election. The book also quotes Trump telling former aides in July that he is strongly considering running for president again in 2024.

Below, we’ll take a look at the reactions to excerpts from Peril, and some assessments from the left and right.

One important note: Typically, I just alternate between who goes first every day (right or left), but today, I am going to keep “What the right is saying” first because I think it will make more sense for the purposes of this story (so you can hear the criticism of Milley before the defense of his actions). Then I’ll share my take.


What the right is saying.

The right says Milley should resign, or at least be investigated.

In USA Today, David Mastio said Milley should resign after going “too far” in preparing to resist Donald Trump’s orders in the closing days of an unstable presidency.

“Milley prepared his senior officers to slow walk any orders from Trump to use nuclear weapons or start a military confrontation with China, according to a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post. That's an appalling step toward shredding civilian control over the military, a bedrock constitutional value, the chairman is sworn to uphold. However, it is an understandable step given that Trump was living in a fantasy world as he whipped his followers into a frenzy that led to terrorism at the U.S. Capitol in a crazed attempt to overturn an election.

“But Milley went even further,” Mastios wrote. “In reassuring his Chinese counterpart that no attack was coming from the United States, Milley promised to call and warn of an impending U.S. attack if Trump ordered one. Such a call would have inevitably cost the lives of American troops tasked with following the orders of the lawful commander in chief. Milley's effort to thwart the potential demands of an unhinged president became a betrayal of the men and women he commands. No leader can make such a promise and retain the support of the military personnel he oversees... Suggesting that the nation's highest ranking military officer resign is not something I take lightly. The man deserves respect… He has more military medals than I have merit badges. Even so, one thing a soldier can never betray and retain command is his fellow service members. Milley promised a communist dictatorship just that. He must go. If he doesn't resign on his own, President Joe Biden should show him the door.”

In The Federalist, Jenna Stocker said Milley disgraced the U.S. military.

“The authors did not disclose the source of the phone calls, but if true, this is an egregious case of dereliction of duty and in line with the modern military’s turn from a machine of war to an institution infatuated with its elitism and filled with disdain for the Americans who make up its ranks,” Stocker wrote. “This is the natural end of what has been a steady march toward a politicized woke-force that covers for the ineptitude of leaders obsessed with their own power. It’s a dangerous turn away from what has been the mission of our military since its inception: to fight and win wars. Now it is a vessel for an elite class to rise through the ranks of power and influence in Washington, D.C., without having to be accountable for the feckless behavior that leads to endless wars, disgraceful exits, and disregard for an institution that should project power, not fold under it.

“But as is the rule of the elites, they are never held to the same standards as those to which they incessantly preach,” Stocker concluded. “His actions to join the political fray as a one-man envoy between the United States and China prove it. The alleged calls to the Chinese reveal he thinks his own freelance diplomacy better serves American interests than the civilian leadership elected through democratic means.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Milley has “more explaining to do.”

“Congress needs to find out how much is true—not because of partisan demands for retribution against the general, but because even the appearance of attenuating civilian control of the military is damaging to democracy,” the board said. “Mr. Woodward’s opaque method makes it impossible to judge the accuracy of his reporting. He relates conversations he didn’t hear based on sources whose motives aren’t explained. Those on the right now demanding Gen. Milley’s head based on Mr. Woodward’s book were rightly cautious of the journalist’s insider accounts of GOP presidencies.

“Yet the statement from Gen. Milley’s spokesman released Wednesday contains no denials,” the board added. “Gen. Milley should be asked to clarify, under oath, the context of his communications with China and nuclear launch procedure when he testifies before the Senate on Sept. 28. America’s military brass rightly has deconfliction channels open with adversaries when their forces are in proximity, but promising a tip off before the President ordered an attack would be an outrageous usurpation.”


What the left is saying.

The left is split on the story, with some celebrating Milley and others saying he should have to explain his actions.

The Washington Post editorial board called for an investigation by Congress.

“It’s important to draw distinctions — and to be clear about what we do and do not yet know,” the board said. “Gen. Milley feared both what an out-of-control Mr. Trump might do and how, on the other hand, China might misinterpret U.S. intentions amid U.S. political turbulence. Through back channels, before and after the election, the general tried to reassure his military counterpart in Beijing of the United States’ peaceful intentions. Two days after the attack on the Capitol, having spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and agreed with her that Mr. Trump was unstable, Gen. Milley arranged for a delay in military exercises the People’s Republic might have seen as provocative.

“No doubt, Gen. Milley explored the limits of his constitutional authority,” the board wrote. “This could be quite benign if he was simply telling China’s top general, Li Zuocheng, as ‘Peril’ reports he did on Jan. 8, ‘We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine.’ … What could be considerably less benign is the pledge Gen. Milley reportedly made to alert Gen. Li ahead of any U.S. strike: ‘If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.’ According to ‘Peril,’ this came in the Oct. 30 call — before the insurrection and, indeed, before the election. We struggle to understand what circumstances — absent clear authorization from civilian policymakers — could justify offering a foreign adversary such a pledge.”

In Bloomberg, Timothy O’Brien took issue with the idea that Trump was in some kind of “mental decline” that Gen. Milley was worried about after the election.

“Did Trump suddenly go into a psychological slide in 2020 that made him more dangerous than before?” O’Brien asked. “No. It was obvious to anyone watching closely that he would rather burn down the house after the 2020 presidential election than acknowledge defeat. He warned of electoral fraud before the 2016 election, too, and he continues peddling the same myth today. It’s utterly predictable, because he doesn’t change. People supporting him or advising him who may have thought otherwise were kidding themselves.

“The risks that the country, the rule of law and our institutions still confront stems from that reality,” O’Brien said. “The Republican Party continues to embrace and foment Trumpism. Much could still go wrong. And we can’t rely on military leaders going rogue to protect us from rogue presidents… I’m glad Milley took the steps he did, and I honor his military service. But the fact that he had to maneuver around Trump demonstrates how broken things are. Milley is a sophisticated and dedicated public servant, and he was well aware how his actions would appear.”

Max Boot cheered Milley’s decision in a Washington Post column.

“The two books paint a consistent picture of a president who was judged a clear and present danger to U.S. national security by his own top general,” Boot wrote. “Milley should be commended for acting to limit an unhinged commander in chief’s ability to overthrow the government or start a war… Milley had no choice but to do what he did, but his actions will further enrage the right and widen the divide between the military and the Republican Party. If Trump or a Trump loyalist comes into power in 2024 or 2028, expect a purge of officers who are deemed loyal to the Constitution rather than to the president and the Republican Party.

“There is no obvious legislative fix that would stop the president from ordering the military to launch a coup — we are dependent on the devotion of the armed forces to the Constitution to forestall that nightmare — but it is possible to prevent the president from starting a nuclear war for political purposes,” Boot added. “Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) have introduced legislation to prohibit the president from a first use of nuclear weapons unless Congress has declared war… It is imperative for Congress to pass some such limitations on the president’s nuclear-use authority before another unhinged president takes office. We suffered badly enough under Trump; 400,000 Americans died of covid-19 while he was in office and insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol. Yet it could have been far worse — and could still be in the future if we don’t act today.”


My take.

I’ll show my cards first and then add some color: Gen. Milley should resign (or be replaced).

First, I’m not sure it actually matters what the finer details are that come out here. Milley had a chance to deny the allegations and he did not. Nothing in all of this reporting is even remotely in the same stratosphere as the allegation that he told a Chinese military general he would give them a heads up about an impending strike, something that is so over-the-top and out of this world I was struggling to believe it until Milley declined to deny it. That alone is enough for him to go.

But zoom out here and look at the larger picture: This account, which is so damaging to Milley’s reputation, comes on the heels of the last few weeks in Afghanistan, which was an operation he bears some responsibility for as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Those failures and the debacle of the withdrawal already had him in the hot seat. A gossip-laden book like this from two famous reporters detailing Milley undermining the Commander in Chief… that’s not going to sit well in military ranks, even among those who loathe Trump (Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman being a prime example).

I also want to note, though, a few other things not being talked about enough. One is that, believe it or not, Milley is not in the chain of command for a nuclear launch. As Fred Kaplan correctly detailed, he is supposed to be consulted. Milley, if the book’s details are to be believed, in the dramatic meeting with his top military brass, was simply reminding them he’s supposed to get a heads up. Milley could have advised Trump against it and Trump could have ignored him and that’s just how it works. From the looks of it, it seemed that he just wanted to know what was going on — which is not nearly as wild an event as some accounts make it seem.

The other important thing here is Trump. If we’re going to take the details of this book at face value — and I’m not saying we should, but if we are — they’re more damaging for Trump than they are for Milley. I’m not sure it’s even particularly close. Costa and Woodward describe a White House where top aides, top generals, the vice president, longtime loyalists and basically every single person who knew Trump well believed that he was totally off his rocker, out of control and liable to start a nuclear war because he was pissed off about his election loss. He spent his final days in office telling Pence that he no longer wanted to be friends if Pence didn’t try to obstruct the election results from being certified. Let that soak in for a minute.

Now: Should we take this stuff at face value? I’m skeptical. We don’t need off-the-record accounts about Trump’s actions in the wake of the election, we saw so much of it publicly. But a lot of people have come out of the Trump White House eager to make a mint off book sales or restore their reputations with off-the-record comments. Delineating who the good or bad guys are is tough to do, precisely because the chaos of the Trump administration produced so many backstabbers and fibbers. Stephanie Grisham, the long-time aide to Melania Trump, is the latest: She just wrote a whole book about how hard she tried to stop the absurdities in the Trump White House, only for former aides to share text messages with Politico showing that Grisham was a willing and enthusiastic participant in that absurdity until she wanted to write a book about what a saint she was.

Could this be more of the same? Could Milley himself be the source for the stories we’re reading? I wouldn’t doubt any of it for a second.

I’d welcome an investigation into the details and as a curious reporter I would love to hear more about the final days of the Trump presidency from a military general under oath in front of Congress. But I doubt anything there would change my feeling: Milley should resign. Not just because of this story, but because his credibility is shot and because he’s part of a military class that rarely faces repercussions for its mistakes. We have an opportunity for accountability now — not just for the allegations in this book, but for his entire body of work — and it’d be good for the country if he stepped down.


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Your questions, answered.

Q: What exactly *is* the Great Reset? I've heard some conservative outlets talk about this as a very serious thing, but it honestly sounds like a conspiracy theory. What's your take?

— Anonymous, Rochester, NY

Tangle: The Great Reset is not a conspiracy theory, though it has spurred a lot of them. It is a real concept from the World Economic Forum that essentially frames the Covid-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake capitalism and address many of the things that ail our planet. Honestly, if you read the “building blocks” of the Great Reset and the ideas that are publicly driving it, it doesn’t seem all that scary. In fact, there are some things I really like: not using GDP as a measure of economic health, for instance, is something I’ve advocated for. Corporations being accountable to workers, rather than only to shareholders, is also something I appreciate.

But there are real dangers to this stuff, and it’s not hard to see why it has drawn so much fear. For instance, one oddly fundamental thing about the Great Reset seems to be building stronger ties between corporations and government. In a lot of ways, though, the Great Reset looks like it would actually make corporations more powerful and make democracy less influential. This is extremely dangerous. I don’t want the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world having a larger say (especially than they already do) in something like how our food is processed and distributed. Government regulation — by leaders chosen by us — is a better mechanism for that.

Anyway, it’s hard to be specific about the theories around the Great Reset without addressing them individually. But yes, it is real. No, it is not all some scary global conglomerate elite takeover. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real dangers in the fundamental idea.


A story that matters.

Afghan refugees are headed to 46 states across the U.S. About 37,000 Afghans are set to be relocated to many states, with California (5,255) and Texas (4,481) receiving the highest number. Hawaii, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming are the only states not to receive any refugees, as well as Washington D.C. The 37,000 refugees on their way will be the first group to immigrate to the U.S., and because they are not coming through a typical refugee process they are going to face major logistical and legal hurdles. The Biden administration is depending on Congress to help provide more resources for these people, and to help pave the way for Green Cards for many of them. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • -8%. The drop in the daily average of new Covid-19 cases over the last 14 days.
  • 22 million. The number of teenagers who log into Instagram each day.
  • 3,335,779. The number of Californians who voted to remove Gavin Newsom.
  • 5,887,471. The number of Californians who voted to keep Gavin Newsom.
  • 1.1%. The percentage of the California recall vote that went to Caitlyn Jenner.
  • 90%. The percentage of atheists in the U.S. who say they are vaccinated, the highest of any “religious group,” according to Pew.
  • 57%. The percentage of white Evangelical protestants who say they are vaccinated, according to Pew.

See you tomorrow?

Don’t forget: tomorrow, we’re going to be diving into the California recall election and what we can learn from it. But it’s for subscribers only. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so by clicking here.

Have a nice day.

Frozen foods are increasingly popular across the globe and are an incredibly important part of our food chain. But they are also costly: not just in dollars, but in the amount of carbon emissions they release and the energy they use. However, researchers say they have come up with a new way to freeze foods that could cut global energy consumption by 6.5 billion kilowatt-hours a year (that’s a lot, apparently), and reduce carbon emissions equal to taking one million cars off the road. This change could be achieved quickly and inexpensively “without requiring any significant changes in current frozen food manufacturing equipment and infrastructure,” according to Cristina Bilbao-Sainz, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Read more about their idea.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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