Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

General Milley Took Top-Secret Action to Limit Trump's Ability to Order Military Strike Says New Woordward Book; Now, Senators Grill Blinken on Administration's Kabul Exit; California Voters Head to Polls to Determine Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA)'s Fate. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 13:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN NEWSROOM: Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley gave on directive at this meeting, nobody was to follow through on possible military strikes ordered by Trump unless Milley personally signed off on it.

Now, these details are revealed in Peril. This is a new book by Washington Post Journalist Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. And CNN's Jamie Gangel got an advanced copy of this book.

Let me set the stage here, Jamie. This is a book that was all around the days of -- surrounding the insurrection, right, or this reporting?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Correct. So, first of all, the book by Woodward and Costa paints a chilling portrait of Trump's final days in office. And here's the headline. They report, as you said, that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley was so concerned about President Trump's state of mind that he took top secret action to limit President Trump's ability from making a dangerous military strike or to use nuclear weapons.

Woodward and Costa reveal that Milley had intelligence that China was on the edge. He was calling his counterpart there backchannel to reassure them, because they were worried that Trump might pull a wag the dog in all the chaos to try to stay in power.

And Milley also reports that -- I'm sorry, Woodward and Costa also report that Milley thought that Trump was in serious mental decline. And at one point, he turns to his senior staff and he says, quote, you never know what a president's trigger point is.

Against this backdrop, Milley, it's January 8th, it's two days after the assault on the Capitol, gets a phone call from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Woodward and Costa obtained an exclusive transcript of this call. And Pelosi is as concerned about Milley. They have a very blunt and dramatic call. Pelosi wants to know, are the nuclear weapons safe from Trump. Here's part of the exchange from the book.

Pelosi, who knows what he might do. 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. He's crazy, and what he did yesterday, meaning January 6th, is further evidence of his craziness. General Milley responds, Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything.

So, Ana, General Milley in that call reassures Nancy Pelosi, according to Woodward and Costa's reporting. But when he gets off the call, he realizes that she's correct and he decides to take this extraordinary action.

CABRERA: So, that call plus the calls with China are what lead Milley then to hold that top secret meeting at the Pentagon, right?

GANGEL: Correct. That same day Milley calls a secret meeting at the Pentagon. He calls in the generals and the officials who man the National Military Command Center, which is the Pentagon war room. And even though, and this is important, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not the chain of command technically, he instructs the war room that they are not to take orders from anyone unless he's involved. According to the book, Milley said, if you get calls, 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.

Ana, Milley may be criticized by some who feel he overstepped his authority, but according to Woodward and Costa, he felt he couldn't trust Trump and needed to take all necessary precautions to prevent him from doing something dangerous. He had a phrase for it, Woodward and Costa write, he called it the absolute darkest moment of theoretical possibility that Trump could go rogue.

CABRERA: And so, Jamie, Milley's fear about Trump doing something that was unpredictable came from this memo that Milley discovered that Trump had signed shortly after he lost the election to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, which, obviously, did not end up happening under his watch.

GANGEL: Right. It's correct it didn't happen. But it turns out that Donald Trump tried. The book reveals that Milley already have had a first-hand experience with Trump in effect going rogue on November 11th, just a week after Trump loses the election.


Milley discovers that the president has secretly signed a military order to pull out of Afghanistan by January 15th before he's going to leave office. There's just one problem. No one on the national security team, none of his top military advisers knew about the order. It turns out it had been drafted by two Trump loyalists at the White House and totally blindsided the Pentagon.

And there's an extraordinary scene in the book where Milley actually discovers -- he's at the Pentagon. He sees this memo, and he goes over to the White House, unannounced, to see National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, who admits to Milley he doesn't know anything about the memo either. And Milley says in the book, quote, what do you mean you have no idea? You're the national security adviser to the president. And the secretary of defense didn't know about this and the chief of staff to the secretary of defense didn't know about this. The chairman didn't know about it. How the hell did this happen? So, Ana, in the end, O'Brien goes into the Oval Office and he convinces Trump to retract, to nullify the memo. But this was a military order, and it is significant that while Trump and his allies are now claiming he really wasn't going to get out of Afghanistan or he would have done a better withdrawal, that memo is proof that Trump was planning to get out and on a very fast timeline. And, obviously, it was also evidence to Milley that Trump could sign a military order without telling anybody.

Let's talk about another dramatic scene in this book, again, this book by Woodward and Costa. This is in the Oval Office the night of January 5th, so just the day before the insurrection, a day before the certification of the election, and as the conversation between Trump and then Vice President Pence. What are you learning about this conversation?

GANGEL: So, we've known this meeting happened, but Woodward and Costa have new details, quotes from the two of them. Trump is trying to pressure Pence to overturn the election on January 6th. And what Woodward and Costa reveal is outside the White House, the MAGA supporters, Trump supporters, are outside. They're cheering. They're yelling on bullhorns. And the two men can hear that in the Oval Office.

And Trump gestures to his supporters out the window, and he says to Pence, if these people said you had the power to overturn the election, wouldn't you want to do that? And Pence replies, no, I don't have the authority to do it.

And then there is this exchange in the book. Trump, but wouldn't it almost be cool to have that power? Pence, no, I've done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It's simply not possible. Trump then loses his temper and yells, no, no, no. You don't understand, Mike. You can do this. I don't want to be your friend anymore if you don't do this. It's a rather surreal scene, Ana.

CABRERA: I don't want to be your friend anymore if you don't do this. That sounds like something we'd hear from grade schoolers.

GANGEL: Correct.

CABRERA: We understand, Jamie, that the book is filled with behind the scenes showdowns in the Oval Office. Obviously, that was one of them. But then there are other confrontations with Trump, the dysfunction that the Republican Party has with Trump. What does it reveal?

GANGEL: So, the book is based on more than 200 interviews with firsthand participants and sources. I can tell you there are scenes in the book where top cabinet officials are so appalled by Trump's behavior. They describe it, his temper tantrums, his lashing out, as more like the movie, Full Metal Jacket, or Dr. Strange Love.

It also -- the book also explores Biden's first six months in office, why he wanted to pull out of Afghanistan so quickly. And there are some very interesting scenes about how the shadow of Donald Trump looms over the Biden presidency. Woodward and Costa report that aides know not to use Trump's name. They say to each other, don't use the T- word.

We should also say the January 6th select committee, which is investigating what happened with the assault on the Capitol, they are going to take a very close look at this book. There are new details about the events leading up to January 6th and what President Trump was doing on January 6th.


CABRERA: So, Jamie, stay with me, because I want to bring in retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton as well to just first get your reaction, Colonel, to this news about the top secret meeting meant essentially, it sounds like, to subvert the president's military command when it came to a military strike, even using nuclear weapons in the days following the election prior to the inauguration of Joe Biden.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Ana, this is certainly extraordinary reporting. And one of the key things about this is it's really unprecedented. You know, when you look at the authorities that a president has as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, they include the use of nuclear weapons, and, of course, there are procedures that Nancy Pelosi and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, talked about in the phone call that Jamie reported.

And what we have here is a place in American history where the extraordinary, the unusual, the unprecedented has happened. And that is that the president himself apparently cannot be trusted by the authorities in the military and by the authorities in Congress to fulfill his duties in the proper constitutional way. And that is a significant deviation from the norm and it's a significant deviation from the way in which we've handled military chain of command in the past. It's a very extraordinary set of circumstances.

CABRERA: So, Colonel, did Milley actually overstep his authority here? What would the normal procedure look like, the normal chain of command for an order from a president in the major military strike in the waning days of a presidency?

LEIGHTON: So, something like that is always extraordinary, and, of course, you have the precedent that happened in 1974 when President Nixon at the time was thought to be a bit unstable before he resigned the office, and the secretary of defense had stepped in and said, don't do anything unless I personally approve it along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

So this is pretty much analogous to that kind of a situation. The normal procedure is for the order to come from the president, go to the commander of strategic command, informing the chairman that something like this is going to happen. But as Jamie pointed out, the chairman is not technically in the chain of command when it comes to military forces. He is the number one military officer, but an adviser, the top military adviser to the president of the United States by law. And as a result of that, he has a lot of influence, but he has no UCMJ, as we would call it, uniform code of military justice command authority.

And that is the kind of issue where you could make the argument that he overstepped his bounds, but he really did the right thing in this case. If all of this reporting is correct, then he needed to step in to preserve the country and to preserve our relationships and, frankly, preserve the military forces that we have.

CABRERA: I mean, speaking of relationships to that other detail that Jamie reported about Milley reportedly holding these backchannel discussions with his Chinese counterpart who is worried about the chaos in Washington, how extraordinary is that?

LEIGHTON: Very extraordinary. You know, when we think of other countries or adversaries like China and Russia, you know, in the popular mind, somebody like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs never talks to these people. But the real story is that they talk to them a lot. Sometimes they talk to them all the time. It all depends on the personal relationships that the chairman has established with his counterparts in these countries.

And in this case, it was absolutely necessary that General Milley get on the phone with his Chinese counterpart and tell him, we have no intention of attacking China. We have no reason to do that. And if something like that happens, Milley generally, apparently said I will warn you of it. And, you know, so he was using his personal relationship, the relationship of trust that he had built with his Chinese counterpart to warn him of the instability that was going on within the U.S. government, so very extraordinary indeed.

CABRERA: Jamie, is it unusual for the Joint Chiefs chair to be having phone calls with the speaker of the House or other top lawmakers?

GANGEL: So, I think in this case we have to keep in mind that Nancy Pelosi, as speaker of the House, was third in the line of succession. So I think that certainly it was unusual in that what happened after January 6th. But I think in this case, while we knew about that this phone call had happened, I think this exclusive transcript that Woodward and Costa have in Peril shows you that actually what Pelosi is saying to Milley underscores, magnifies his concern.


He already sees and is talking to China. He's worried about that. He knows about the rogue-signed memo.

And while in the conversation, he's reassuring her, he also is saying, I agree with you, when she says the president is crazy. And Woodward and Costa report that her phone call is really what made him say, I've got to do something and take this extraordinary action.

I just want to point out one other thing. When he calls in the generals and officials from the war room after he tells them very specifically to follow the process, the procedure but make sure he knows about it, there's a very dramatic scene where he goes around the room to each one of the generals and colonels, and he says to them, got it? And he looks them in the eye, and they say yes, sir. Got it? Yes, sir. And Woodward and Costa write that Milley considered that an oath that they had made.

I don't think that anyone -- that Milley, certainly, felt that he was overstepping his bounds. He wanted to do the procedure but just the way Schlesinger did with Nixon. In fact, in the book, Milliey calls it pulling a Schlesinger. He had to make sure the guardrails were up on the military strike or, even worse, the use of nuclear weapons.

CABRERA: And this reporting obviously is pertinent to understanding more about what happened in those days both before and after the January 6th insurrection, but also when you consider that this isn't just a former president we're talking about. We're talking about a man who could run for president again in the next election, the next presidential election in 2024 who, right now, is presumably the GOP frontrunner in that contest. So I think that's important too as we continue to report out on what we're learning in this book, and others.

Thank you, Jamie Gangel and Colonel Cedric Leighton. I appreciate both of you.

Also break right now, Secretary of State Blinken facing a new round of tough questions on Capitol Hill over the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. How the secretary responded when he was asked who was ultimately responsible.



CABRERA: Secretary of State Antony Blinken back on Capitol Hill facing a new round of tough questions. But are lawmakers getting answers on the nation's messy withdrawal from Afghanistan?


SEN. JIM RISCH (D-ID): The American people want to know who is responsible for this. So, let's start with this. Who is responsible? Who made the decisions on this? Was it the president of the United States?

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Ultimately, the president makes the decisions. That's correct.


CABRERA: The secretary, again, laid blame on the prior administration, saying the peace deal Trump worked out with the Taliban put the wheels in motion for last month's debacle.


BLINKEN: Well, President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1st of this year. As part of that agreement, the previous administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including some top war commanders.

By January of 2021, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 9/11.


CABRERA: Now, this testimony today was before a Senate committee. Blinken is the first senior Biden administration official to testify on America's chaotic exit from Kabul. These are live pictures as his testimony continues. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to appear before this Senate committee today.

I want to bring in CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood. And, Kylie, the secretary, again, addressing the number of American citizens still left in Afghanistan. Did he clear up the numbers today?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, he gave a number that we've been hearing for a number of days now, 100. He said that there are about 100 Americans who are still in Afghanistan that the State Department is in contact with. I want you to listen to what he said about that number and why it is hard to give a more precise figure.


BLINKEN: The number is about 100, and it's very hard to give a real- time number at any given moment, because it's very fluid, by which I mean this. Some people -- and we're in direct contact with this group. Some, for very understandable reasons, are changing their mind from day today about whether or not they want to leave.


ATWOOD: Now, because of the fluidity of that situation, it means that the State Department is still very much engaged with those Americans on the ground as they make these decisions about if they are going to leave, and when they are going to leave if they choose to do so.

Now, when it comes to legal permanent residents of the United States, that's green card holders, the secretary said that the number of those folks left in Afghanistan is likely in the thousands. He wasn't definitive about that number. He also wasn't definitive, Ana, when asked how many Afghans are still in the country that want to come to the United States. He said the department is working on a full accounting of all the Afghans that got out. And then, of course, they will turn to the question.

The other significant topic that was discussed was the future of the U.S. relationship with the Taliban, and even from Democratic members, Senator Menendez.


They talked about how the Taliban's actions thus far have been, in the words of Senator Menendez, quote, horrifying. He talked about how they have beaten women, they have gone after local media, shut down local media, separated school children by gender in classrooms. He said that those things that they have done already should inform the way the Biden administration is deciding to chart their path forward with the Taliban.

Now, Secretary Blinken said that the relationship will be determined on the actions that the Taliban take. And, of course, we're waiting to see when they will make that decision because we've already seen a lot of what the Taliban has done on the ground. Ana?

CABRERA: Kylie Atwood, we'll let you get back to listen in to that hearing and we'll check back with you with new reporting as it comes out.

Meantime, another major developing stair story today, California's crucial recall election, voters heading to the polls right now to decide whether Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. This is a state President Biden won by 29 points and where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one. But because of the quirks of California's recall rules and a Republican challenger who has tapped into pandemic frustrations, there's no guarantee of a blue wave.

CNN's Nick Watt is on the ground in Los Angeles. Our Josh Campbell is in San Francisco.

Nick, how did it get to this point where a Democratic governor in a predominantly blue state is fighting to keep his job?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, to a large degree, it has been COVID. California acted very early. California was pretty strict, and, of course, a lot of small businesses bore the brunt of that. Early on, I was speaking to the recall organizers, and that was their focus. They said, we are doing this not for national politics, we're doing this because of his general handling of the state and his handling of COVID.

Now, the other big issues here, of course, homelessness and wildfires. And you mentioned the mechanics of this in California also made this possible. All you need to do to get a vote like this to happen is get 12 percent of the people who voted of the number of people who voted in the last governor election, get 12 percent, that was about 1.5 million people, get signatures from 1 .5 million people, then the vote happens.

And we could end up -- this is very unlikely but theoretically possible, because the first question is do you want Newsom removed or not. So, Newsom could have 49 percent of the people saying, no, we want to keep him, but 51 percent say, no, let's get rid of him. Then you move on to the 46 other people who are on this ballot to replace him should Newsom get chucked out of office. So, in theory, one of these people could get 2 percent or 3 percent of the vote and become the next governor of California.

Now, among them, one of the leaders, Larry Elder, a conservative radio talk show host, Caitlyn Jenner, of course, Angeline, who is a self- described billboard queen. We've also got teachers, farmers, student, pastors, politicians, entertainers and a retired homicide detective. Ana?

CABRERA: That's a lot of candidates. Let's bring in Josh in L.A. Vote by mail, Josh, figures to be a major factor again. How could it affect how these results are reported tonight?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Just to give you an example, Ana, of that vote by mail and the impact it's having. We're here at San Francisco City Hall inside one of the voting locations. And as we pan down at the area where voters are to line up, you see that it's basically empty right now. And authorities here tell us that that's because of two likely reasons, the first because of the mail-in ballots that they're not likely to see as many people here in person.

Again, that came out obviously out of the pandemic, and we see that happening with this election as it did with 2020. But they also tell us they're waiting for the after work crowd, those who may be coming in after the fact to cast their votes.

Now, everyone that is registered received a ballot. If they didn't mail it, they can postmark it by today. Officials here tell us they can also bring it to any location in San Francisco, any polling location and drop that off, if they just want to ensure that they hand that to an election official.

Now, as far as what this means here in this part of the state up in San Francisco, this is obviously a very blue area, for Joe Biden, obviously, by a wide margin, Gavin Newsom during the last election, comfortable lead here. He's from this area, in and around the Bay Area. You see, it's a sea of blue. You have to get farther out near Sacramento into some of the counties near Nevada to even see Republicans having the ability to push over 50 percent.

But what I'm hearing in talking to Democratic consultants here is it's all about turnout. They don't want voters to look at this as any regular election, where the Democrats run the state. They sweep the statewide offices because of the fact that this is a heavily blue area, they want to ensure that they have the volume, that they have as many voters here as possible coming out, casting their ballot, doing it by mail in order to try to --