Trump’s Mental Stability in Question

“O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”

– William Shakespeare, “King Lear”

That the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called his counterpart in China to assure him that then-President Trump was not planning to attack his country illustrates the depth of concern by U.S. leaders about Trump’s mental stability.

“He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, Jan. 8, two days after Trump supporters attacked the Capitol to thwart the certification of Joe Biden as president.

“I agree with you on everything,” Milley told her.

He went to Pelosi after having spoken twice by phone with Chinese Gen. Li Zuocheng to calm any fears Li may have had about Trump launching a military attack as a ploy to remain in power, according to the book “Peril” by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. It’s to be released Tuesday.

Questions about Trump’s erratic, chaotic behavior often cropped up throughout his stormy tenure in which precedent, tradition and expectations of customary presidential behavior were turned upside down. The media described some of those actions as unhinged and commentators would characterize him as dangerous

The House impeached him twice, once for trying to shake down the leader of Ukraine to get dirt on Biden and the second time for instigating the deadly siege of the Capitol in which five people died. Senate Republicans protected him both times by voting to acquit him.

And his most ardent followers are still trying to protect him, calling for Milley to resign or be court-martialed for opposing his commander in chief by calling Li and defense leaders of other countries. I believe he did the right thing, keeping us from the start of an accidental war.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote a letter to Biden saying Milley should be fired because he sought to “actively undermine the sitting commander in chief.”

Biden shot back. “I have great confidence in Gen. Milley,” he said Wednesday in response to a question at a White House news conference.

So much of what Trump has done and said during his presidency, and even now with his insistence against all reason that he beat Biden in the election, is so questionable that America’s top general believed he had to ensure potential adversaries that the country and its military is stable before a misinterpretation of an action sparked a war.

Trump just has made too many people, both at home and abroad, worried about what he might do. They don’t take his word that he’s a “stable genius.’

And the persistent lying: more than 30,000 falsehoods or misleading statements spewed from Trump during his four years in the White House, according to a tally kept by The Washington Post. It began with his repeated assertions that his inaugural crowd was bigger than President Barack Obama’s. It wasn’t.

How do you trust or believe in someone for whom truth is a meaningless word? Or trust someone who defies simple common sense by advising the public to use household bleach or an anti-malarial drug to cure COVID-19? Or trust someone who doesn’t disclose as early as Feb. 7, 2020 that the coronavirus is “deadly stuff,” as Trump put it, because he didn’t want to frighten the people? He needed to level with us.

China believed Trump planned to create an international crisis before the election by launching an attack against it, U.S. intelligence reported, according to the book “Peril.”

Milley’s “calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities [as chairman] conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability,” Col. Dave Butler, the general’s spokesman, said in a written statement.

Milley, appointed by Trump in 2019, first called Li Oct. 30, days before the Nov. 4 election and two months before the insurrection at the Capitol, and told him he would alert him if there were to be a military strike on China, the book said, as reported by the Post and The New York Times.

“If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time,” Milley told Li, according to the book. “It’s not going to be a surprise.”

The Post, in an editorial, called for a congressional investigation into the events involving the calls because “we struggle to understand what circumstances – absent clear authorization from civilian policymakers – could justify offering a foreign adversary such a pledge” to disclose beforehand of an attack.

Such an investigation would be helpful so that all of us understand what was going on.

Trump’s response in a terse statement was to label Milley a “dumbass” and said he never thought of attacking China.

“I assume he would be tried for TREASON in that he would have been dealing with his Chinese counterpart behind the President’s back and telling China that he would be giving them notification ‘of an attack.’ Can’t do that. Actions should be taken immediately against Milley.”

Milley may have taken drastic unauthorized action in that first phone call, but given Trump’s background and his previous statements about a “rigged” forthcoming election and hints that he would not leave the White House if he lost to Biden, it seems under the circumstances that the general did the right thing because of a reasonable suspicion that Trump could do something of an unhinged nature to keep himself in power.

As the late Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in another context, “Stuff happens.”

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.