MIKIO SUGENO, Nikkei Washington bureau chief
WASHINGTON — As rioters took over the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the country also faced a national security crisis involving China that was unknown to the public, authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa told Nikkei in a recent interview.
Their book, “Peril,” reveals that on Oct. 30, 2020, just days before the American presidential election, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley received intelligence that China believed the U.S. was planning to attack the Asian country.
Milley, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, called Chinese counterpart Gen. Li Zuocheng on Jan. 8 to inform Beijing that there were no such plans. But by that time, two days after the Capitol attack, Li “was very worried that the United States was actually going to collapse,” Woodward said.
After Jan. 6, “the Chinese military went on military alert, as did the Russians, as did the Iranians,” Woodward recalled. “So here we had this crisis that we didn’t know about.”
Woodward also said that the discussion between Milley and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over concerns that then-President Donald Trump might use nuclear weapons was “one of the most extraordinary” exchanges in his 50-year career as a journalist. Woodward and Costa are journalists with The Washington Post.
In the Nikkei interview, the authors also looked back on Jan. 5, the night before the Capitol attack. Trump was at the White House, meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. At the nearby Willard Hotel, Trump’s advisers — including his attorney Rudy Giuliani and former strategist Steve Bannon — gathered in a room, “trying to map out where this event on Jan. 6 could go, legally, politically, constitutionally,” Costa said.
Costa countered the narrative that Trump was not involved in the planning of the Jan. 6 attack.
“President Trump was anything but passive,” Costa said. “Maybe he was idle on the actual day, Jan. 6, but it’s the days prior where he’s aggressively pulling the levers of power, trying to pressure his own vice president, state officials, federal lawmakers, White House officials, the Department of Justice, pulling all of these levers to try to stay in power.”
That’s a president “who had the intent to pressure people to help him to overturn an election,” he said.
Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
Q: Can you point to some of the most significant anecdotes in the book?
COSTA: One scene that really sticks out to me is Jan. 5, 2021, the eve of the insurrection. Our book brings you into this very critical time, where Trump is in the White House meeting with Vice President Pence, and across the street at the Willard Hotel, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon and other Trump allies are trying to map out where this event on Jan. 6 could go, legally, politically, constitutionally.
Outside the Willard Hotel you have Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, these extreme groups, gathering as the night goes on.
One scene that continues to stand out is Trump talking to the mob outside, from his door in the Oval Office. He opens the door, on the night of Jan. 5, and he allows the cold air to blast into the room. Some of his aides are cold and shivering. It’s 31 degrees outside.
They say, “Mr. President, can you close the door?” He says, “No. I want to hear my people. They have courage.”
WOODWARD: One of the surprises was to discover that there was a national security crisis during this whole period. A week before the election, Gen. Milley, who was the top military adviser who serves the president in this very unique role, looked at the intelligence that was coming in, and it showed, on Oct. 30, that the Chinese thought we were going to attack them.
This is the worst moment for somebody in the national security world, if somebody thinks they are going to be attacked, because then they may make the first “move of opportunity,” as it’s called, and it was really surprising.
Then, two days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Milley’s contact in the Chinese military, who was his equivalent, Gen. Li, was very worried that the United States was actually going to collapse.
So, to be certain, Milley called in the watch officers in the Pentagon, who handle all military orders from the commander-in-chief, President Trump, and would deal with the issue of nuclear weapons if that ever came up, and he went around the room, to the officers. “You got it? Do you understand that?” — he, Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs, needs to be involved and that this cannot happen without him.
And there was no clue in the public literature or the reporting at the time that this was going on behind the scenes. If you can spend eight or nine months on a project like this, you actually discover new material.
Q: You described very vividly how officials in the president’s orbit — Milley, Attorney General Bill Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Sen. Lindsey Graham — tried to contain Trump’s judgment and actions. It seems that the sources were quite willing to explain what happened behind the scenes.
COSTA: What we did find in the Trump orbit was sometimes it was emotional. I could share a story how sometimes sources would grow emotional.
And it was our job, as reporters, not to take one point of view or two points of view, but to collect as many as possible, to really get to the truth.
Right above my computer are two words: “Assume nothing.” And that has been a guiding principle for this book but also for my own reporting work. So often in political journalism assumptions drive coverage.
On Jan. 6, I’m watching the insurrection, partly on television, and I’m stunned and shocked. And one of the initial wave of news reports was that President Trump was somewhat idle that day, watching passively from the dining room outside the Oval Office, watching his people attack the Capitol.
For a few weeks, even months, the idea of President Trump being idle on Jan. 6 became conventional wisdom in Washington. But over the course of eight or nine months, Bob Woodward and I found that President Trump was anything but passive. Maybe he was idle on the actual day, Jan. 6, but it’s the days prior where he’s aggressively pulling the levers of power, trying to pressure his own vice president, state officials, federal lawmakers, White House officials, the Department of Justice, pulling all of these levers to try to stay in power.
That’s the opposite of a passive president. That’s a president who had the intent to pressure people to help him to overturn an election.
WOODWARD: You have to look at what happened on Jan. 6. You’ve seen the videos of it. It’s extraordinary, and it was reasonable for the Chinese and other countries to look and say, “What is going on? What’s happening to America?”
As you look at it from a hundred thousand feet, Vice President Pence, as the Constitution dictates, he has to look at the certificates and count the votes, and that’s all he’s supposed to do. Trump, of course, wanted him to disrupt this process. And, if you look at it logically, the possibility of disrupting that process, it wouldn’t be hard, if Pence was going to go along. This was a moment of potential constitutional catastrophe.
In the end, Pence did his duty, according to the law and the Constitution. But, as we chart in the book, he explored other options. He did not want to anger Trump. He was 61 years old at this time, was a man with presidential ambitions. Trump’s power in the Republican Party, at that time, was immense. Now it’s immense. Tens of millions of people support Trump, and the polling shows, across the board, that there are tens of millions of people who believe the election was stolen.
COSTA: There are so many unanswered questions still, with Jan. 6. Who were the operational commanders for the violence that unfolded on that terrible day? Was there any coordination directly with the White House, people at the Willard?
Q: President Joe Biden enjoyed strong popular support after his inauguration thanks to vaccinations and the passage of the American Rescue Plan, bringing normalcy back to daily life in this country. But his approval ratings have declined sharply since. Why do you think this happened?
COSTA: It was his decision on Afghanistan, in the summer, that you began to see a turn in the polling. Biden was determined to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan despite, as our book shows, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin [and] Secretary of State Antony Blinken being a bit more cautious in their approach to withdrawal. You had NATO allies concerned, [and they] expressed that to Blinken. Secretary Austin was looking at what he described privately as “a gated withdrawal,” where certain thresholds would need to be met.
Biden, though, informed by his experience, going back to the [President Barack] Obama years, was determined not to be pushed into a position where he felt compelled to add additional troops to the mission in Afghanistan. And ultimately he decides to withdraw all U.S. troops, 20 years into this war that many Americans on both sides of the aisle have called an endless war.
But because of the way that implementation was done, Biden began to see his polling numbers sink. The stall of the infrastructure package in September-October also contributed to Biden sinking.
Q: What is key for Biden to regain popularity, not only in polling numbers but to make ground on substance?
COSTA: Biden made a decision early in his presidency to work hand-in-hand with the progressive wing of his party. On Feb. 1, he met with Senate Democrats, and it’s a striking scene. He says to Sen. Bernie Sanders, “I want to work with you.”
Sanders says, “If we don’t work together, if we don’t go big, authoritarianism may be on the march in the United States.”
Biden looks up at the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and harkens back to the New Deal and major spending on federal programs. You see Biden, who spent much of his career as more of a centrist in the Democratic Party, making the decision early on to be part of the more progressive wing, and — to use a word that many in his orbit have used about his early decision — he wanted to be “transformational.”
It was not an easy path for him, from the start. Sen. Joe Manchin and others were resistant to Biden’s decision to push for a rescue package of that size. But Biden plowed ahead, pushed Manchin to come along.
And we have these scenes of Manchin and Biden talking, in the book, that tell you so much about Biden’s determination to get this done. But he’s not yelling at the progressives, like some might have expected a year prior, should he have won; he’s yelling at a fellow moderate, in Joe Manchin.
And so, when you look ahead for 2022, I would urge you to look back on 2021, and Biden held firm to his decision to be with the progressives, as he worked on infrastructure, as he worked on spending early in the year.
But after the Republicans won the Virginia gubernatorial contest in November, it did rock the Democrats and forced them to re-ask the question: “Who are we? Where are we going?” And, so far, Biden has kept his party together as a coalition, working with the progressives.
WOODWARD: Something that’s not regularly discussed in political coverage is that the day after the Jan. 6 insurrection, after Pence and Congress officially certified Biden as president, Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short sent a very important verse from the Bible, the Book of Timothy, and it says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.”
This is a pillar of Pence and his closest aide, Marc Short. And we forget that there is this undertow here, and we have scenes in the book where Pence is meeting with Trump in this acrimonious period in January, and Pence says to Trump, “I’m still praying for you. I always will.”
And people who may not be people of faith will look at this and say, for Pence and Mark Short and lots of people in this country, the religious component is a very, very important and large one, that’s overlooked.