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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Managing a mentally unbalanced president

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Tribune Content Agency

What do you do when a president is crazy?

That’s essentially the question Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced in the twilight days of the Trump administration. His answer, as reported by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their forthcoming book, “Peril,” has some people up in arms.

It seems that Milley, according to published accounts from those who have read the book, became convinced his tantrum-throwing, spittle-spewing, reality-denying commander-in-chief was in a state of mental collapse and as such, was an immediate threat to world peace. So the general went around him, twice reaching out via back channel to his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng.

The first call was last October. Milley had reportedly seen intelligence suggesting that China, rattled by U.S. military exercises in the South China Sea and by President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, believed an American attack was imminent. He assured Zuocheng that this was not the case and went so far as to issue an extraordinary promise: “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time.”

Milley’s second call is said to have come in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. He reportedly felt it necessary to assure China the U.S. government was stable, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Milley also warned military officers against obeying any presidential orders to launch nuclear weapons unless he, Milley, was involved.

The propriety of Milley’s actions has come under heavy scrutiny. Trump-era national security adviser John Bolton defended him and vouched for his patriotism. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that reassuring a nervous adversary is “not only common, it’s expected.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, expressed “grave concern” and demanded that President Biden fire Milley “immediately.” Nor was the condemnation limited to morally limber political actors. Former Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who famously testified against Trump in his first impeachment and paid for his temerity with his career, said Milley must resign, having “violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military,” which he saw as “an extremely dangerous precedent.”

But the Trump years set extremely dangerous precedents on a daily basis. It is at least conceivable that this one averted war. And none of this Sturm und Drang addresses what would seem to be the obvious issue. Namely, that the question of how to manage a mentally unbalanced president should never have devolved to Milley to begin with, should never have become his responsibility.

That it did speaks to the unadulterated cowardice of the political party that protected Trump, made excuses for him, lied for him, at every step of the way. As his precarious mental state became ever more obvious, the GOP’s pusillanimous refusal to do its patriotic duty became ever more glaring.

Impeach him? Invoke the 25th Amendment? Simply stand up on hind legs and object?

Nope, nope and nope. Instead, the Gutless Old Party behaved like Mikey’s brothers in the old Life cereal commercial: “I’m not gonna try it. You try it.”

Now we’re supposed to dump opprobrium upon a soldier who was required to answer a question that never should’ve come to his desk and never would’ve, had these people exhibited a molecule of courage? No. The most troubling thing here is not what Milley chose to do.

It’s that he had to make a choice at all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, FL 33172. Contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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