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General Milley Worried Trump Would "Go Rouge" After Jan 6 in New Woodward/Costa Book; General Milley took Top-Secret Action to Limit Trump's Ability to Order Military Strike Says New Woodward Book; Trump Pressured Pence to Overturn Election on January 5th, "I Don't Want to be Your Friend Anymore if you Don't do this"; Woodward/Costa Book: Pelosi to Milley on Trump After Jan 6, "He's Crazy. You Know He's Crazy. He's Been Crazy for a Long Time". Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 12:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: --went with this withdrawal. I'm Kate Bolduan. "Inside Politics" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Thank you Kate and welcome to "Inside Politics". I'm John King in Washington. We begin this hour with dramatic breaking news the peril of Trump.

America's top general just two days after the January 6th Capitol Insurrection, so worried about the then president's angry and erratic behavior. He called a secret meeting with top deputies including the chain of command for the country's nuclear arsenal.

General Mark Milley's message at that meeting, no one was to act on any orders for military strikes even from the president, unless Milley the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was personally involved in the sign off as called for by Pentagon protocols details of that extraordinary top secret Pentagon meeting among the many startling new revelations about the final days of the Trump Presidency in Peril the brand new book by the legendary Washington Post Journalist Bob Woodward and his colleague at the post, Robert Costa.

Our CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel obtained an early copy of this book, and she is with us now. Wow!

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: John, Woodward and Costa, as you say report that General Mark Milley took top secret action to limit President Trump's ability to make a military strike or to use nuclear weapons. Let me just stay - set the stage from the book. According to Woodward and Costa on January 8th Milley is deeply shaken from the assault on the Capitol on the 6th.

He believes Trump; to your point is unstable, unpredictable and Woodward and Costa write Milley believes that Trump is in serious mental decline. He also has been talking back channel to the Chinese. He is aware from intelligence that the Chinese are on edge because of January 6th, and because of Trump's behavior, so he's trying to reassure them behind the scenes. And Milley tells his senior staff, "You never know what a president's trigger point is". Against this backdrop, same day, January 8th, Milley gets a call from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, we've heard about this call but Woodward and Costa got an exclusive transcript of the call.

Pelosi has the same concerns that Milley does. The phone call is dramatic. It is blunt. And Pelosi wants Milley to reassure her that the nuclear weapons are safe. And this is the exchange 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 actually two days ago, January 6th, is further evidence of his craziness.

General Milley says Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything. Milley reassures Pelosi on the call. But when he gets off, he thinks to himself she's right. And he decides to take this extraordinary action.

KING: So he has this call with the Speaker in which she is agitated and essentially reinforces his concerns. He's seeing this intelligence and actually having a back channel that's extraordinary, back channel with his counterpart in China saying calm down, everything will be OK. And he decides to call this extraordinary meeting take us inside.

GANGEL: Right. And by the way, according to Woodward and Costa Milley never tells the President about these back channel calls. So he calls an extraordinary meeting of the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon War Room. He brings the generals in, and the officials according to Woodward and Costa.

Just remember, he is not technically in the chain of command. He is an advisor to the president. And he tells the generals and the officials who run the War Room, no matter who calls you. You got to let me know. Here's what he says. "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 the process".

Look, Milley may be criticized by some for overstepping his authority, but according to Woodward and Costs that he felt that he couldn't trust Trump, and that we were in such a dangerous time of risk that he had to take all necessary precautions.

He actually had an expression for it. He called it the absolute darkest moment of theoretical possibility, what Trump might do?

KING: And so General Milley knows at this point, his relationship with the president over that demonstration across the White House was a little toxic, it was bold. So perhaps he's worried about the relationship but he also has other evidence. They write in a book about this secret memo that General Milley found out without his knowledge the president was trying to very quickly pull troops out of Afghanistan before he left office. [12:05:00]

GANGEL: Right. Milley had proof that President Trump could go rogue he had done it once before. A week after Trump loses the election on November 11th this memo, a military directive shows up unexpectedly at the Pentagon. It is a secretly drafted and signed by the president memo saying you're going to get out of Afghanistan by January 15th before Trump's presidency is over.

There's just one problem, no one on the national security team. No one at the Pentagon knew that this had been drafted and signed. It had been done by two Trump loyalists at the White House. They had done an end run around the national security team. They were completely blindsided.

So Milley decides he's going to go over a no notice a surprise visit to the White House. And he confronts National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, who says, I don't know anything about this, either. And Milley says to him, "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 how the hell does this happen".

In the end, O'Brian convinces Trump to nullify the memo, as we all know; he didn't pull out the troops. But it shows two things. It shows that Trump was willing to do an end run on his national security and military advisors. It also shows for all the criticism now that Trump and some of his allies are making about Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan. He had just signed in order to get out very, very quickly, even more quickly.

KING: Even more quickly.

GANGEL: Right.

KING: And there's other new details again, we know about the dysfunction in the White House at that time, especially the tension between the president and his then Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump wanted Mike Pence to jump in front of the train.

And we've heard about this before, but they have new details about this January 5th meeting, the day before Mike Pence has to preside over the Senate and essentially accept the results of the Electoral College, which is to accept Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States, the President and the Vice President. They take us inside that meeting, too.

GANGEL: So these are direct quotes of Trump and Pence. It's the evening of January 5th, and they can hear the MAGA supporters outside on Pennsylvania Avenue cheering blow horns. And Donald Trump is twisting Mike Pence's arm, and he gestures toward the MAGA supporters outside that they could hear. And he says depends.

If these people said you had the power, wouldn't you want to in other words, overturn the election? Pence says I wouldn't want one person to have that authority, and then Trump says depends. But wouldn't it be almost 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 loses it. 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.

KING: In addition to the dysfunction there, there are also more detailed accounts again; we know the former president was trying to find help anywhere he could. We know this was having a dramatic impact across the Republican Party not just across the country, but different reactions to the president from leaders within his own party.

GANGEL: 100 percent. So Mitch McConnell is playing along for a while but then Woodward and Costa report in the book that privately he wanted to be done with the with Trump and calls him a Kentucky slogan "OTT be off the track thoroughbred".

Obviously we know Kevin McCarthy was going down to Mar-a-Lago and continues to go down. I will tell you, the January 6th Select Committee is going to take a very close look at this book. Steve Bannon is in it. They also, you know, the last book was called rage this could be rage 2.0 there are scene after scene of Trump temper tantrums lashing out showdowns.

Top advisors describe some of the scenes as something out of full metal jacket or Dr. Strangelove. And I just want to also say that the book also does deal with Joe Biden's first six months in office, why he pulled out of Afghanistan and wanted to do that, and also the shadow of Trump over the Biden.


GANGEL: White aides used to warn each other don't use the T word they didn't even want to say his name.

KING: We're going to talk more about this in a few moments and we're going to bring some political reporters in as well to help with the conversation. But I just want to pull the pieces together in the sense you talked about could be rage 2.0. I say "Peril" is actually a great appropriate subject because to use Mitch McConnell's words the off the track thoroughbred wants to get back on the track.

And so when we learn this history, very important for the January 6th Committee, very important for everybody out there in America Democrat, Republican and Independent or something else to look through the history of this the conduct the steps taken by General Milley that rage and fury of the President of the United States.

But the peril is the behavior is consistent. And he wants to shape his party today, tomorrow into 2022. And he's already talking about a comeback in 2024.

GANGEL: There is no question as you read through this book that he is preparing for 2024 and that he still is going to push the big election lie.

KING: He continues to do that almost every day.

GANGEL: Right.

KING: Jamie Gangel stay put. We're going to continue the conversation more in this breaking news, "The Peril of Trump" and what it means, as the former president looks ahead to reshape campaigns in 2022 and perhaps a comeback bid in 24.



KING: More now in this hour's breaking news. The new revelations about the tense final days of the Trump Presidency and what they mean is Mr. Trump now tries to shape the 2022 and the 2024 election campaigns? You see the cover right there "Peril" is by the legendary Journalist Bob Woodward and his Washington Post Colleague and Political Reporter Robert Costa.

The book details the worries of General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the president's anger at losing might trigger reckless behavior that endangered national security. And it has new details of Trump's fury at losing and the deeper fury that Vice President Pence and others would not help him clean to power.

CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel is back with us also with us to share their reporting and their insights Julie Hirschfeld Davis, the Congressional Editor at "The New York Times", Olivier Knox, National Political Correspondent at "The Washington Post", and Francesca Chambers, White House Correspondent at McClatchy.

So we're learning even more in new details, memos, transcripts of dynamics that have been out there before, but you're getting brand new details. I want to come back. Jamie and I were talking in the last segment about the revelation about General Milley, America's top general saying I need to get the commanders together.

I'm worried he was worried that Trump was going to try to do an end around an issue either an order for military strikes on Iran military action elsewhere, possibly Milley had in his head nuclear authorization codes. If you get calls, he told them at a top secret Pentagon meeting, 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, and you do the process. And I'm part of that procedure.

The significance there this is from Woodward and Costa. Now there will be Trump supporters out there who say - deep state, the generals taking the president's power away. If you read what was said there quite different.

OLIVIER KNOX, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: There is a procedure for say launching nuclear weapons. And that procedure has been honed over decades of the cold war. And I'll simplify it here. But basically, the president is the only person in - who can order a nuclear strike. The procedure calls for them to summon either virtually or in person, their top national security and foreign policy advisors either in situation room or via secure teleconference, that consultation can last 30 seconds, it can last minutes it can last hours, those advisors will provide the president with a list of options, whether it's one nuclear weapon or an all-out American strike, that sort of thing.

Those advisors can then try to change the president's mind. There is a check in counter check with the Pentagon itself before the process of launching the nuclear weapons takes place. What I can't tell yet is whether Milley is saying I have a veto over the president's decision, which would be problematic, or whether he's saying don't let anyone say senior advisors at the White House try to short circuit the process.

KING: And as someone who covered the Trump White House just again, this detail that America's top general, everybody at the White House, you know, some were trying to advance the president's agenda, find a way to promote the big lie and stay in power. Others were just frightened at his erratic behavior and what he might do well?

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: And if you read what Milley said in Peril that with what we already knew this was a time in which the president had already ousted his Pentagon Head. He was moving to oust other advisors to the military within the Department of Defense.

And so there is reason for Milley to believe that there could be interference by advisors at the White House. We're going outside of the normal process within this White House as the president tried to instill Trump loyalists, either in those advisory roles or within the Department of Defense.

KING: And we know there are a lot of people out there watching a lot of Democrats, even some Republicans who just want us to stop, stop, just leave him out of it. Why do you mention and why do you cover this? I get it. But remember, number one, this is important history.

As Jamie pointed out in the last we're still having a committee investigate the January 6th Insurrection, Donald Trump's role around that is critical to building historical debates. Number two he still is the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

The House Republican leader kisses the rain most House Republicans who could get power back next year's midterm election. So that's what makes it relevant, which is why Julie Davis you also covered the Trump White House this meeting with Pence. It just tells you about what he thinks about himself and what he thinks about use of presidential power?

But wouldn't it be almost cool to have power? He's trying to get Mike Pence to say no, I will not certify the electorate. I will not follow the Constitution. I will not follow the law. Wouldn't it be almost cool to have that power?

Mike Pence, no; I've done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It's simply not possible. Trump, 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. Number one there's a little bit of the third grade there.


KING: But let's set that aside because this is more important than that. Trump's view of forget the law, forget the Constitution, I want to stay in power make it happen.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And the common thread here I agree, it is a third grade thing to say. But the common thread with this and with the reporting, the new reporting on the exchange with General Milley is that Trump thinks that personal loyalty to him is the operative and important thing here.

It's not about the presidency. It's not about the country. It's about him and what he wants, and what is good for him and what Milley he was trying to do. And I think what Mike Pence is trying to do is say, no, there actually is a process. That process is sacrosanct and we have to stick with it.

And it is, you know, frightening to look back and see how close we came to a president demanding that that be circumvented and that there are people there who had to say wait no --

KNOX: But that's a - that's a great point that that's a thread through the Trump Presidency, whether he's calling the my generals --


KNOX: --or he's turning to the Attorney General to be his personal lawyer, or whether he's relying on other senior aides to do his work. And I don't mean his work, as in the President of the United States sets policy and they carry it out. I mean, a much more personal level, much more personal relationship.

KING: I'm going to steal a book for a second, as I bring you in at this point. I just want to steal the book to hold it up. Because this is - this is - that is the peril. That is the peril because Donald Trump is still the Leader of the Republican Party. There are still Republicans who hope he runs again, there are Republicans raising money off him.

He came to power, as someone who said, I will be your voice, I'm a populist outsider, I will represent the little guy. I'm just a businessman outside of from New York who will cut deals. If he were to win another election now that we know how he really feels about presidential power that to him would be an affirmation of his view. That is the peril.

GANGEL: No question about it. And just to go back for a minute about loyalty. The next day, according to the book, he calls Pence again, and he says, you know, don't wimp out. And he says, if you don't do this, I picked the wrong man four years ago. There's also an exchange that evening, January 5th, where Trump is talking to Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani, who are sitting at the Willard Hotel in a War Room. And he says about Pence is saying no to him. He's so arrogant. So it's just the extraordinary dynamics behind the scenes that were going on.

Sorry, to get to 2024 there is no question that this dysfunction within the Republican Party, we see it with Kevin McCarthy, but you also see it in conversations with guests who Lindsey Graham at the end of the book, is they want his help in 2022. He still owns the party. But he's really only interested in what happened in 2020 and 2024?

KING: Every day, you don't stand up to it, you reinforce his view that he can think the way he thinks. Now again, a lot of these dynamics have been discussed in some of the other great books about the Trump Presidency in some of the reporting of people at this table and people at these organizations but the value of a book like this is number one, you do get some new information.

Number two, you get the granular detail. We don't often get transcripts of the Speaker of the House calling America's top general. So this is Nancy 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 is further evidence of his craziness.

General Milley again, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything. Number one, that last part will set Trump off. He already had a dysfunctional relationship with General Milley at the end. But the fact that looks, it was a common thread from early in the Trump presidency that the Speaker thought the president was erratic thought the president was maybe not wired correctly.

But this - but that is extraordinary she is third in the line of succession. She is - at that point Kamala Harris is Vice President now she is America's most powerful woman. And she is saying the President of the United States still president for a month, a month ago, three weeks ago at that point is crazy.

HIRSCHFELD: Right. And we know that at this time, she was making a lot of calls to a lot of people, particularly at the Pentagon trying to say to them, he is not stable. We need to do something. And we're given to understand that some of those exchanges went the way that General Milley is meeting with his colleagues - which was to say, there's a procedure here, you can't cut the president out of it completely. You can't just say, well, he's crazy. We have to write him off.

And he you know, he is the Commander in Chief. But there was clearly a lot of grappling behind the scenes with knowing what they knew about his state of mind and what he was willing to do. What were the options in case he demanded something that that, you know, his advisors or, you know, the top member of Congress thought were beyond the pale and dangerous? KING: And again, the value of great reporting you connected the dots earlier, but I want to reinforce it. This is not just people Speaker Pelosi, you could say if you're watching Your Trump supporter Democrat predisposed to think those bad things about him.


KING: General Milley was picking up signals then that the Chinese were worried that the Chinese had some indications things were happening. And God forbid, there's a miscommunication and miscalculation, as an American ship goes through the South China Sea or is an American surveillance flight is flying somewhere a miscalculation in a situation like that can lead to horrible events.

GANGEL: Absolutely. He had had two phone calls with his counterpart in China. And it was clear from those conversations and the intelligence they were picking up that China was on the edge and he was reassuring the general but he was concerned that Trump might actually do something.

KING: That's fascinating reporting. I hope everybody follows up on it is important Jamie appreciate you're coming in to help us. These guys - I'm going to keep for a little bit longer. And when we come back, the Secretary of State Tony Blinken facing more tough questions on Capitol Hill today about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan you can hear how he responded that's next.