Peril

  • By Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 512 pp.

Things really were as bad as many of us suspected.

General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comes close to being canonized in Peril, the latest listening-behind-the-curtains book by Bob Woodward, this time writing with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa. All that’s lacking is a choir. 

In mid-September, as reporters saw advance copies of the book, there were headlines about the good general’s reassuring phone calls to his counterpart in China during the final months of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Apparently, that country’s intelligence service was convinced Trump shortly would be going for a full-on wag-the-dog scenario. Maybe to divert attention from that pesky covid-19? 

Next came the headlines about Milley lining up the members of the military who carry the nuclear “football,” extracting promises that they’d call him before initiating a launch sequence. He did the same thing with the heads of the military services. 

During any other administration, if it had become known that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs had done these things, there would’ve been an avalanche of editorials shouting “Overreach!” and “Fire him!” Indeed, there were a few of these. Overall, though, most of us seem to have read the news, reflected on who was in the White House at the time, and thought, “Well, that was very sensible of him.” And then, “I wonder if there’s any coffee left.”

Full disclosure: Painting Milley as our ranking Warrior Against Crazy initially raised my hackles. I’d seen him walk with Trump en route to that infamous Bible-waving in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on June 1, 2020. If you cast your mind back to the time of the myriad Black Lives Matter protests across America, you’ll recall that the president had been threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and put active-duty troops in the streets.

That day on live TV, the world had just seen peaceful protestors driven out of Lafayette Square, which is across from the White House. Tear gas, rubber bullets. Even mounted Park Police charging the crowd on horseback.

Generals usually come to Capitol Hill and the White House all polished up, rows of medals over their hearts. That day, Milley wore camo. Battle dress. Secretary of State Mark Esper, a West Point graduate himself, walked next to him. For a few minutes — until Trump held up the Bible for an absurd photo op — I thought there had been a military takeover of Washington. 

The book notes that, as they walked, Esper said to Milley, “We’ve been duped. We’re being used.” Milley agreed, saying it was a political event and that he was peeling off. Seconds later, Milley was seen on his phone. Apparently, his wife was wondering the same thing I was.

Still, by another hundred pages into Peril, I was ready to light a few candles to Milley myself. “Mr. President,” said policy advisor Stephen Miller during a White House meeting, “they are burning America down. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, they’re burning it down. You have an insurrection on your hands. Barbarians at the gates.”

Milley’s instant reaction? “Shut the fuck up, Steve.”

He knew that Miller, perhaps the furthest right of Trump’s staff, had been egging on the president. Trump dearly wanted to go into savior mode.

Turning to Trump, Milley told him there are 276 American cities with populations over 100,000. That, in the last 24 hours, two of those cities had seen major protests, and a few others had seen 20 to a few hundred protestors turn violent. By far, the majority of the protests had been peaceful. He talked of systemic racism and letting off steam.

“They used spray paint, Mr. President. That’s not an insurrection,” Milley said. Esper and Attorney General William Barr agreed. Trump was silent. 

Another candle: Shortly after the election, Milley was handed a memo signed by Trump that ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Somalia by Dec. 31, 2020, and from Afghanistan no later than Jan. 15, 2021. There had been zero discussion about such important moves. The memo’s format looked fishy, but the signature appeared authentic.

Milley headed to the White House. “How did this happen?” he asked National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who looked at the memo and said, “I have no idea.” Neither did Vice President Mike Pence’s lead security advisor know about it. The National Security Council and the White House Counsel’s office also hadn’t seen or heard of it. Pence’s advisor went to the president with the document in hand. Trump recognized the memo. He didn’t say whether he’d signed it or not, but he nullified it then and there.

Six months later, Axios learned that the memo had been drafted by Trump’s former body man (a staffer who accompanies a dignitary at all times, holding his coat, carrying extra contact lenses, etc.) and a retired Army colonel who was an advisor to the acting Secretary of Defense.

The second half of the book covers the election and early days of the Biden Administration. Peril doesn’t portray President Biden as Mr. Nice Guy. Instead, what we see is a man smarter and more politically wily than we may have given him credit for being.

It was always clear Biden wanted to end the 20-year Afghanistan war. He likened the generals who, early in President Obama’s first term, strong-armed the new commander-in-chief into sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, to a third grader at confession. The kid tells the priest he stole a gold chain but leaves out the part about there being a gold watch at the end of it. In every meeting, Biden looked for the watch.

In decades to come, what political and media junkies may most recall about Peril — aside from its disturbing details about Trump — is that it defines Costa as Woodward’s successor. So it’s unfortunate that, in the epilogue, Woodward, the most famous reporter of his generation, author of a string of bestsellers, and holder of two Pulitzers, goes on and on about how he “learned about politics” from his much younger co-author. Seriously?

Costa is at least as capable a reporter as Woodward was at 35. Readers don’t need the demeaning sales pitch. The book is proof of the pudding. 

Salley Shannon's writing has appeared in many national magazines and newspapers.

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