General Mark Milley, the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, went out of his way on Tuesday to defend his conversations with Chinese officials and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about nuclear launch authorities under former president Donald Trump.
The Pentagon's top officer told Congress he had spoken to journalist Bob Woodward for his new book Peril, which characterised a series of calls he made after US intelligence suggested the Chinese believed that the United States could launch a nuclear attack.
“I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese” Gen Milley told Congress during his opening remarks while testifying on the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“It is my direct responsibility... to convey that intent to the Chinese. My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message against was consistent: stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”
The conversations happened without Mr Trump’s knowledge, and the former president lambasted Gen Milley for failing to tell him about the discussions after reports previewing the book went public.
According to Peril, Gen Milley told his Chinese counterpart Li Zuocheng: “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
And while the book characterised the conversations in October and December as secretive, the general insisted he co-ordinated the calls with former defence secretary Mark Esper and former acting defence sectary Christopher Miller as well as other US government agencies.
“Shortly after my called ended with General Li, I personally informed both [former secretary of state Mike Pompeo] and [former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows] about the call, among other topics,” Gen Milley told Congress.
He also said that after Ms Pelsoi requested a call with him, he 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.”
The calls have infuriated Republican members of Congress, and Gen Milley has already become something of a bugbear within the right-wing media ecosystem.
He first came under conservative scrutiny after his comments about race at a congressional hearing in June went viral.
“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white,” he said at the time.
“What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the constitution of the United States of America?”