Republican Cheney offers strong defense of Milley, invokes Jan. 6 Capitol riot

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By Patricia Zengerle and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Representative Liz Cheney offered a resounding defense on Wednesday of General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praising him for "standing in the breach" in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and drawing a contrast with some of her fellow Republicans.

Milley has spent much of the past two days fending off often personal attacks from Republicans during acrimonious hearings on the withdrawal from Afghanistan over his calls with China and interviews for books critical of Donald Trump's presidency.

Many members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees devoted their time to questions about Milley's interviews with Bob Woodward and other authors rather than to the 20-year U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and its chaotic and deadly end last month.

Several asked why Milley had not resigned, and one suggested that if he were in China, he might be shot.

Cheney, one of only two Republicans on a select committee investigating the January attack, apologized to Milley while criticizing those who tried to "whitewash" the riot.

"It was an effort to stop the constitutionally prescribed process of counting electoral votes. It was the first time in our nation's history we did not have a peaceful transfer of power," Cheney said.

A mob of supporters of Republican then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 as then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers met to certify Democrat Joe Biden's presidential election victory.

One of Milley's calls to his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, took place on Jan. 8, as Washington reeled from the impact of the unprecedented assault, in which four people died and more than 100 police officers were injured. Lawmakers, staff and journalists fled in fear for their lives. One Capitol Police officer died of his injuries the next day.

Milley said he called Li to de-escalate tensions, citing intelligence showing China was concerned about the risk of attack from a destabilized United States.

After the riot, eight Republican senators and 139 representatives, including several Armed Service committee members, still cast votes objecting to the election.

Cheney said many U.S. officials had failed to do their duty.

"For any member of this committee, for any American to question your loyalty to our nation, to question your understanding of our Constitution, your loyalty to our Constitution, your recognition and understanding of the civilian chair of command is despicable," Cheney told Milley.

"I want to apologize for those members of this committee who've done so," Cheney said. "And I want to thank you for standing in the breach, when so many, including many in this room, failed to do so."

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Phil Stewart; editing by Jonathan Oatis)