Mark Milley, the top military adviser to outgoing President Donald Trump, was worried. That’s how the new book “Peril” begins, its authors told a rapt audience at University of Virginia on Friday afternoon.
“We open ‘Peril’ with that scene,” said Bob Woodward, perhaps best known as half of the Washington Post reporting duo that penned the defining account of the Watergate crisis.
Woodward was joined by his co-author CBS News’ Robert Costa in the Small Special Collections Library Auditorium at an event hosted by the UVa Center for Politics.
Their new book opens with Milley on Jan. 8, 2021, Costa told the crowd, as Milley convened America’s top military brass to deal with a presidential crisis that now rivals Watergate.
“Milley’s whole M.O. is try to keep tensions calm,” Costa said. “Milley calls it the darkest moment of theoretical possibility. This is the idea that nuclear powers could misunderstand each other in a chaotic moment.”
Jan. 8, 2021, was just two days after a pro-Trump mob overran the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to derail the Electoral College’s tally of votes, which Trump ultimately lost.
“Jan. 6 prompted a national security crisis abroad, and it wasn’t just with allies; it was with adversaries who looked at the images from the United States and wondered what was happening,” said Costa. “Was the U.S. government stable?”
Costa said that Milley was insistent about staying in the loop about any military or diplomatic action at home or abroad.
“He believed Trump was in mental decline,” said Costa. “Nobody had predicted Jan. 6 on a global level, and they were all waiting and watching to see what would happen. Milley steps in with this private meeting.”
Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato, who moderated Friday’s conversation, likened Milley’s decision to a similar moment at the end of President Richard Nixon’s term, when chief of staff Al Haig reportedly told military commanders not to obey orders from Nixon. That moment was captured in revelations made by Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein 46 years ago.
“This was toward the end when he [referring to Nixon] was drinking heavily and talking to portraits on the wall,” said Sabato.
While the vast majority of Republican House members in 2021 voted against certifying Biden as the winner of the presidential election, the two “Peril” authors contended that one Republican politician stood out for bravery: Vice President Mike Pence.
The two authors told of how Trump skipped a long-planned New Year’s Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, to go to Washington and push his vice president to follow the so-called Eastman memo, a discredited legal theory by attorney John Eastman, to overturn the election.
“Has Pence broken yet?” Trump reportedly asked his advisers, Costa said. “Bring him to me.”
The Jan. 6 committee has since documented that scene, Costa said, as Trump aides opened the doors to that day’s crowd on Freedom Plaza in D.C.
“And he says to his aides, ‘Can you hear them outside? My people are out in the streets.’ He’s listening to the mob, and then Pence comes in for a one-on-one meeting,” Costa recounted.
It was at that time the president allegedly made his ask.
“Mike, you have to do what I want you do,” Trump said, according to Costa.
“I can’t do it,” Pence reportedly responded.
“And then he points to the mob outside, and he says, ‘If they gave you the power, wouldn’t you want to do it?’” Costa continued. “Talk about temptation.”
The authors give credit to two Pence aides, including Marc Short who was briefly a scholar at UVa’s Miller Center, for serving as Pence’s “guardrails” against Trump’s allegedly unconstitutional demands.
“Trump was elected to violate norms,” said Woodward.
During an audience question-and-answer session on Friday, a young man questioned how Woodward ever got the Watergate story – and even how he ever got hired – at the Washington Post. Those questions, and conspiracy-fueled answers, have made the rounds on Twitter and on Fox News.
“With little journalistic experience, why were you hired to write the biggest news story in American history?” asked the young man, who sported a white knit sweater adorned with a huge orange “V.”
Woodward replied that his year penning hard-hitting stories at the recently defunct Montgomery Sentinel and the scores of mundane courthouse stories he penned at the Post provided useful training. He recalled getting summoned one beautiful Saturday morning to cover the story of five men who were arrested wearing business suits while burgling the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex.
“I don’t think Carl Bernstein and I were assigned it; we kind of took it,” said Woodward. “And one of the lessons I learned on that is that all good work is done in defiance of management.”
The young man who asked the question on Friday declined to give his name and said he still thinks that Woodward is part of the so-called Deep State.
Clay Vaughan, a fourth-year student at UVa’s Batten School, was less combative.
“I love hearing such intimate accounts of people in the press corps who have the chance to have such intimate conversations with such important people from history,” said Vaughan. “It’s incredible hearing them talk up close and personal about their up close and personal interactions.”