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Stranger than fiction

Deranged spirit of Donald Trump hovers malevolently over US-China relations in Bob Woodward’s new book

Former US president Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Justin Lane)

Donald Trump is not quite gone after all, and his spirit hovers over the US-China relationship, courtesy of a new book, ‘Peril’, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Meanwhile, a new US defence accord appears to be directed towards the Chinese.

Just a short while ago it seemed Donald Trump had crawled back into the dank cave from whence he had, only a few years ago, emerged. Impeached twice, stripped of virtually all of his social media access and effectively forced to retreat to his two golf clubs – Bedminster in New Jersey and Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Despite occasional reappearances at a few rallies, he seemed pretty much a fading figure. Yes, Trumpian true believers still seem convinced of his imminent resurrection (or at least in 2024); a variety of Republican politicians sometimes show up to come before him and “take a knee” in supplication for his blessings; and he has been giving some rambling, near-solipsistic comments on occasional broadcast outlets. But he actually seemed more like a still-corporeal ghost of Christmas past who was lost in traffic than anything else. 

The other day, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, on a day filled with solemn memorials and tributes, three presidents – George W Bush, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden – joined together for these events. Former president Bush gave an unusually sharp – and unexpected – rebuke to domestic terrorists like the 6 January insurrectionists, effectively saying they were just as much a threat to US values as any Taliban fighter. Former president Trump, by comparison, was to be found – and we are not making this up – providing live colour commentary for a boxing match between two over-the-hill, has-beens for a minor sports TV streaming channel.

And while all this was going on, what should ooze into our email in-box from Trumpworld but a particularly sleazy fundraising offer – for $89 you could buy a printed reproduction on canvas of a painting featuring the visage of Donald Trump floating over the White House. The image seems to have taken its inspiration from those Ascension-style paintings churned out in North Korea about the Young Leader, Kim Jong-un. Behold this and be afraid. A certificate of authenticity is helpfully linked to this description as well. You have to have one of those, no question about it. 

This picture would be a perfect match for that painting of Elvis Presley on black velvet that readers may already own – and the Trump one would be suitable for the opposite wall in one’s family room or man cave. 

Meanwhile, the newest volume on the Trump presidency, Peril, by Bob Woodward, written in tandem with Robert Costa, and available in stores and on the internet on 21 September, is about to wash over pistol-whipped readers who may not yet have had enough of the Trump era.

The big shocker, as reported by The Washington Post, reads: “Twice in the final months of the Trump administration, the country’s top military officer was so fearful that the president’s actions might spark a war with China that he moved urgently to avert armed conflict. 

“In a pair of secret phone calls, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, that the United States would not strike, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political reporter Robert Costa. 

“One call took place on Oct. 30, 2020, four days before the election that unseated President Donald Trump, and the other on Jan. 8, 2021, two days after the Capitol siege carried out by his supporters in a quest to cancel the vote. 

“The first call was prompted by Milley’s review of intelligence suggesting the Chinese believed the United States was preparing to attack. That belief, the authors write, was based on tensions over military exercises in the South China Sea, and deepened by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward China. 

“‘General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,’ Milley told him. ‘We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.’ 

“In the book’s account, Milley went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack, stressing the rapport they’d established through a backchannel. ‘General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.’ 

“Li took the chairman at his word, the authors write in the book, ‘Peril,’ which is set to be released next week. 

“In the second call… to address Chinese fears about the events of Jan. 6, Li wasn’t as easily assuaged, even after Milley promised him, ‘We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy  sometimes.’”  

This episode is redolent of events that came in the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, shortly before Nixon resigned. Then, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took it upon himself to warn military commanders to check with him first before following any bizarre orders from the president, a man who was by then under immense stress and had been drinking heavily. 

For the current saga, the Post’s account added, “Li remained rattled, and Milley, who did not relay the conversation to Trump, according to the book, understood why. The chairman, 62 at the time and chosen by Trump in 2018, believed the president had suffered a mental decline after the election, the authors write, a view he communicated to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a phone call on Jan. 8. He agreed with her evaluation that Trump was unstable, according to a call transcript obtained by the authors. 

“Believing that China could lash out if it felt at risk from an unpredictable and vengeful American president, Milley took action. The same day, he called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing the military exercises, according to the book. The admiral complied. 

“Milley also summoned senior officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons, saying the president alone could give the order – but, crucially, that he, Milley, also had to be involved. Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood, the authors write, in what he considered an ‘oath.’” 

Good lord.  

It’s been a while since this writer has read any political thrillers like Seven Days in May, but, still, who would have thought the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the entire US military would have felt compelled to carry out a procedural end-run around a potentially deranged president who might be considering setting off a conflict with China in order to hang on to executive authority. In most political thrillers, the plot line goes 180 degrees the other way, where a few stalwart (and lucky) political figures fight off a military coup by generals and a few craven political toadies.  

Perhaps General Milley was paying particularly close attention to the need to rein in a wild-eyed, rogue president in an uncertain international security climate. Or, perhaps, he was also atoning for his poor judgment in joining – in combat fatigues, no less – the then-president for his power walk to cross Lafayette Square, Bible in hand, to go to St John’s Church, thereby showing the nation who was boss, back in summer 2020. Either way, taking this step to lock in all operational commanders this way clearly took some guts for Milley, especially when it was possible there might have been a waverer or two among the admirals and generals who conceivably might have seen a congenial home among Trumpian thoughts. 

As soon as this story broke out into the open, not surprisingly, various Republican senators and congressmen called for Milley to be cashiered, and then charged with treason (or maybe drawn, quartered, and defenestrated for good measure). But none of them were proposing a medal for him for possibly saving the republic. Also, not surprisingly, President Biden then announced he had full confidence in the general. Because Milley still has some time to go before his appointment in his current position ends, that should presumably put an end to talk of snapping Milley’s sword in half and then ripping off his epaulets and uniform buttons, just like they did in those old-time Western movies. But, and here’s the thing, General Milley and some of his strongest denouncers will star in an absolutely must-watch, televised hearing in the US Senate on 28 September. This one should be extraordinary theatre and maybe even cast some light on the circumstances of the Trump inner circle as his administration slowly wound down to its final disastrous days 

Meanwhile, there are really interesting developments in US approaches towards dealing with China. Now that the albatross of Afghanistan has been cut from the Biden administration’s neck, no matter how sloppily that happened, more important questions may be able to gain more cogent, focused attention.  

The other day, the Biden administration, together with the British and the Australians, announced a new defence accord, Aukus, (as an acronym, big ugh); the first order of business being arrangements to help the Aussies construct a modern, nuclear-powered submarine fleet. (This, of course, truly annoyed the French who thought they were just about to sell conventional-powered subs Down Under. Arms deals are always such troublesome things.) It was quickly clarified that this agreement meant nuclear-powered as in propulsion, not nuclear-armed, just in case readers were wondering. 

While the ostensible object of all this affection was not named outright, it does not take much to deduce this strengthened relationship and the plan for those subs is directed northwards towards the Chinese, who are themselves busily fortifying a whole swathe of the disputed islands and islets in the South China Sea (a major shipping lane), testing new missiles, and building up their own naval forces. Aukus will complement the quadrilateral – or quad – formation that includes the US, Australia, Japan, and India. Not actually an alliance, Aukus does indicate growing resolve to have a more coordinated defence and security orientation vis-à-vis China and the possibilities of any disruption to the Indo-Pacific region – or changes in the balance of power. It will obviously also be watched carefully by leaders in Southeast Asian nations and Taiwan. Taiwan is not part of this defence arrangement, but their leaders would obviously see their future as inextricably tied to the success of keeping China within bounds in their neck of the woods.

And so, it’s just another day in international relations. DM

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  • I have yet to see a convincing argument as to why China, the world’s biggest exporter, would want to disrupt trade in the South China Sea. The reason they’re busy fortifying the disputed reefs is precisely because the USA regularly sails warships and aircraft carriers up and down China’s coast supposedly keeping the shipping lanes open. Add to that the fact that the USA regularly invades foreign countries under false pretexts, one can understand why China is defensive.

    Imagine if China sailed warships up and down the US coast? The Americans would deem that a grotesque act of aggression.