WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff twice called his Chinese counterpart in the final months of the Trump administration to reassure him that Donald J. Trump had no plans to attack China in an effort to remain in power and that the United States was not collapsing, according to “Peril,” a new book by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
“Things may look unsteady,” the chairman, Gen. Mark A. Milley, 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 and in the second of two such calls. “But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Yet despite his assurances, General Milley was so concerned about Mr. Trump that later that day he convened a meeting with top commanders to remind them that the procedures for launching a nuclear weapon called for his involvement in such a decision.
The book also reveals how Vice President Mike Pence struggled more than was publicly known over how to navigate Mr. Trump’s demands that he upend the election certification. Speaking privately to former Vice President Dan Quayle, who oversaw the certification of the 1992 election in which he was on the losing ticket, Mr. Pence appeared open to going along with Mr. Trump’s plan, pushed the false claim that Arizona’s voting results were wrong and asked whether there was any way he could delay certification.
“Peril,” which is scheduled to be released next Tuesday, says its accounts are based on contemporaneous notes, documents and interviews with unnamed firsthand participants and witnesses. The New York Times obtained a copy of it.
Similar to other media reports and books released since Mr. Trump left office, the book details how Mr. Trump’s presidency essentially collapsed in his final months in office, particularly after his election loss and the start of his campaign to deny the results. Top aides — including General Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William P. Barr — became convinced that they needed to take drastic measures to stop him from trampling on American democracy or setting off an international conflict, and General Milley thought that Mr. Trump had declined mentally in the aftermath of the election, according to the book.
A little less than half of the book also covers the first several months of Joseph R. Biden’s administration, as the new president grappled with the pandemic, a faltering economy, Congress and the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“If the mission is to preserve the Ghani government, I would not send my own son,” Mr. Biden is quoted as telling aides in his first few months in office during the discussions about the withdrawal, referring to President Ashraf Ghani, who at the time was trying to repel the Taliban from taking over the country.
But it is the book’s details about the Trump administration that are likely to garner the most attention.
In the days leading up to the 2020 election, the book reveals, American intelligence showed that the Chinese believed that Mr. Trump planned to launch a military strike to create an international crisis that he could claim to solve as a last-ditch effort to beat Joseph R. Biden Jr.
General Milley, who had become increasingly concerned about China’s growing military power and the potential for one misread move to set off combat between the world superpowers, first called General Li around that time on a secret backchannel. He wanted to assure General Li and President Xi Jinping that the United States was not planning to attack China.
On the Jan. 8 call, General Li suggested that Chinese leaders feared that the United States government was unstable. He pressed General Milley over the course of an hour and a half about whether the military was going to take action.
Despite General Milley’s reassurances, he feared that Mr. Trump might be trying to find a moment that he could seize on to remain in power, similar to Hitler’s exploitation in 1933 of an arson fire at the German Reichstag to help institute emergency powers, the book said.
But even after the call, General Milley concluded that the situation was “grave” and General Li “remained unusually rattled,” the book reports.
Mr. Trump, General Milley had concluded, did not want a war but might order the launch of some sort of military strike that would set off a chain reaction and lead to war.
“I continually reminded him,” General Milley is quoted as saying, “depending on where and what you strike, you could find yourself at war.”
Later that day, General Milley spoke to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was growing increasingly concerned Mr. Trump would lash out and use military force.
“This is bad, but who knows what he might do?” Ms. Pelosi said. “He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time. So don’t say you don’t know what his state of mind is.”
“Madam Speaker,” General Milley said, “I agree with you on everything.”
General Milley, who as the president’s top military adviser is not in the chain of command, tried to reassure Ms. Pelosi that he could stop Mr. Trump.
“The one thing I can guarantee is that as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I want you to know that — I want you to know this in you heart of hearts, I can guarantee you 110 percent that the military, use of military power, whether it’s nuclear or a strike in a foreign country of any kind, we’re not going to do anything illegal or crazy,” he said.
“Well,” Ms. Pelosi said, “what do you mean, illegal or crazy?”
“I can give you my word,” General Milley said. “The best I can do is give you my word and I’m going to prevent anything like that in the United States military.”
After speaking to Ms. Pelosi, General Milley convened a meeting in a war room at the Pentagon with the military’s top commanders, telling them that he wanted to go over the longstanding procedures for launching a nuclear weapon. The general reminded the commanders that only the president could order such a strike and that General Milley needed to be directly involved.
“If you get calls,” General Milley said, “no matter who they’re from, there’s a process here, there’s a procedure. No matter what you’re told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure. You’ve got to make sure that the right people are on the net.”
The general added: “The strict procedures are explicitly designed to avoid inadvertent mistakes or accident or nefarious, unintentional, illegal, immoral, unethical launching of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
Then, he went around the room and asked each officer to confirm that they understood what he was saying.
Twelve days later, General Milley said, he thought he might be one of the happiest people at Mr. Biden’s inauguration because Mr. Trump had finally left office.
“We know what you went through,” Mr. Biden told General Milley shortly before the inauguration. “We know what you did.”
While much had been reported about General Milley’s views of Mr. Trump, the book’s depiction of Mr. Pence revealed for the first time the depths that the vice president went to as his fealty to Mr. Trump collided with calculations about his political future and the counsel of his aides and advisers to follow the Constitution.
In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Mr. Pence called Mr. Quayle, the only living Republican vice president forced to certify an election in which he was on the losing ticket.
Mr. Pence told him that the president was convinced that Mr. Pence could throw out the election results in order to keep himself in power.
“Mike, you have no flexibility on this,” Mr. Quayle told Mr. Pence. “None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.”
“I know, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell Trump,” Mr. Pence said. “But he really thinks he can. And there are other guys in there saying I’ve got this power.”
Mr. Pence then echoed Mr. Trump’s false claims of election fraud. “Well, there’s some stuff out in Arizona,” Mr. Pence said.
“Mike, I live in Arizona,” Mr. Quayle said. “There’s nothing out here.”