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America’s top general was worried. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark Milley looked anxiously at the military commanders he had summoned to a secret meeting at the Pentagon. It was two days after an insurrection had overrun the US Capitol in Washington, DC, and President Trump was still refusing to accept that he had lost the November election.
Fearing that a mentally unstable Donald Trump might launch a nuclear strike to create a state of emergency, allowing him to remain in office indefinitely, Milley issued an extraordinary order: If Trump tried to launch a war or nuclear attack, nobody was to fire a missile without consulting Milley.
His message was clear: the general would not allow the President “to do anything illegal or crazy”.
Milley ordered the military top brass: “No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. And I’m part of that procedure.”
He went around the table, looked each officer in the eye and asked them to confirm: “Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” each replied.
President Trump was a loose cannon, the general believed. “You never know what a president’s trigger point is,” Milley told his senior staff.
This disturbing scene is exposed in the shocking new book Peril, published this month by veteran Watergate journalist Bob Woodward and co-author Robert Costa, revealing the dangerous drama secretly played out in the administration’s last days.
The revelation comes as the prospect of Trump, now 75, returning to the White House grows ever more pertinent.
He has been regrouping at his Mar-a-Lago base in Florida, telling one Right-wing network just days ago that only “a bad call from a doctor” would prevent him from seeking the Republican nomination for the 2024 Presidential election.
So the Woodward and Costa account ‑ based on interviews with more than 200 high-level sources, quotes from phone transcripts and White House documents ‑ is chilling.
Gen Milley, they say, was certain that the President “had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election, with Trump now all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies.”
Worse, believed the general, Trump’s erratic behaviour was potentially pushing America to the brink of nuclear war.
Milley feared that China, suspecting the US President was about to order an attack, “could choose to do what’s called a ‘first-move advantage’ or a ‘Pearl Harbor’, and conduct a strike.”
Only days before the November 2020 election, China’s top general, Li Zuocheng, had confessed to Milley that China thought America was poised to launch an attack.
At that point, Milley made an extraordinary ‑ and possibly traitorous ‑ promise: “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time.”
The temperature rose sharply again with January’s Washington insurrection, so Milley called Gen Li to calm China’s mounting fears of an American attack.
“Things may look unsteady, but that’s the nature of democracy, General Li,” said Milley. “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Yet everything was far from fine, as the book reveals. America’s generals and political leaders alike feared that a beleaguered Trump might ignite a war to help him stay in power.
After Trump refused to accept he had lost the election by more than seven million votes, and helped incite the insurrection, CIA director Gina Haspel warned Gen Milley: “We are on the way to a Right-wing coup,” the book reveals. “The whole thing is insanity. He’s acting like a six-year-old with a tantrum.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump “crazy” and the Oval Office an “insane snake-pit”, and asked Gen Milley: “Is there anybody in charge at the White House who was doing anything but kissing his fat butt all over this?”
Milley told her: “I agree with you on everything.”
Even Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a brutal assessment of the failing administration, telling staff: “We’ve got a plane with four engines and three of them are out. We’ve got no landing gear. But we’re going to land this plane and we’re going to land it safely.”
That America didn’t crash and burn in the wake of Trump’s election loss is a minor miracle, the book makes clear.
Immediately after losing the 2020 election, President Trump signed a military order to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by January 15, 2021 ‑ five days before he would relinquish the White House.
He did this without consulting his national security team or his generals, who eventually persuaded him to kill the order.
His last-ditch plan to retain the presidency was to have Vice President Mike Pence refuse to certify Joe Biden’s victory, leaving the way free for Republican-dominated State legislatures to choose Trump.
“I don’t want to be your friend any more if you don’t do this,” Trump threatened, sounding like a peeved seven-year-old.
In desperation, Pence phoned former Vice President Dan Quayle for advice, only to be told: “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it.”
When Pence, who had loyally defended Trump for four years, finally rejected the President’s coup attempt, Trump yelled: “You’ve betrayed us! I made you. You were nothing. Your career is over if you do this.”
Trump watched the January 6 insurrection unfold on TV, ignoring entreaties from family and advisers to order the rioters to stop. “Trump blinked and kept watching television,” write the authors.
More than an hour after the riot began, he finally tweeted, calling for peace. It was too late. Protesters had overrun the Senate, attacking police, looting offices and forcing politicians and staff to flee. By the time it was over, five people were dead.
Trump’s closest aides had long been concerned by his behaviour. Attorney General Bill Barr told him some harsh truths, informing Trump his “main problem is you think you’re a ****ing genius, politically… You’re wrong.”
The book is awash with Trump tantrums, insults and expletives. When Defence Secretary Mark Esper announced he would not bring in the Army to quell the insurrection, Trump exploded in the Oval Office: “You took away my authorities! You’re not the President! I’m the goddamn President!”
Turning on his staff, Trump yelled: “Every one of you is ****ed up!”
And when Barr made the mistake of referring to the incoming “Biden administration”, Trump was apoplectic ‑ how could Biden be President when he had stolen the election? “If a human being can have flames come out of his ears, this was it,” thought Barr.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson only felt able to deny calling the President “a moron” with a straight face, the book reveals, because he actually called Trump “a ****king moron.”
But the President continued to ignore repeated requests by aides to gracefully concede the election and protect his legacy. He has yet to call Biden to congratulate him.
President Biden, 78, inherited a White House in disarray. After months of Covid vaccine development he found Trump had no plan for its distribution. He also inherited his troubled plan to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, but confessed that if America’s mission was to preserve the ramshackle Afghan government, “I would not send my own son”.
Homesick for Delaware, Biden branded the White House “the tomb,” the book reveals. Meanwhile, worries grow that, politically at least, he may be right.
Trump may have left the White House, but he is far from gone. He continues to stage campaign rallies across the US, still denying all evidence that he lost the last election.
“We will never give up,” Trump told supporters. “We will never back down. We will never, ever surrender… Our fight has only just begun.”
General Milley fears that the January 6 insurrection ignited by Trump may have been a “dress rehearsal.”
“Milley wondered, was this just Trump’s desire to project strength? Or a desire for absolute power?” ask the authors. “Peril remains.”
Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Published by Simon & Schuster. £20.
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